No company or product can survive without feedback, both from customers and the internal team. But soliciting, vetting, and applying it are their own massive challenge: How do you make sure you're hearing from the right people in the right context, and how do you separate useful input from noise?
Cynthia Samanian, product manager at the growing private, mobile-only social network Path, is responsible for bringing together teams in engineering, design, finance, and other departments to effectively implement new features and ensure the success of the product development cycle. One of her priorities has been to devise systems for both internal and external feedback that complement varying working styles and make sure important insights aren't lost in the shuffle.
Here are three approaches that Samanian says have been effective and productive at Path:
Even at a technology company, technology can't solve everything, so Samanian employs an old-school, physical, real-time review process. "We have a design team that uses Photoshop and other tools to create mocks of what a feature or exploration should look like," says Samanian. "Then we have several large, white foamcore boards, throughout the office. When designers have their mocks in progress, they post them, even if they're not final. We create a physical space to look at mocks as a team, early in the product cycle, to brainstorm. We have working sessions one or two times a week for designers, engineers, and others on the team to have free-flowing conversations—or the timing can be organic, and people can convene at the boards when it's convenient. There are lots of tools to share mocks digitally among teams, but it really makes a difference to have it in a physical space. Looking at the same exact thing at the same exact time can be much more valuable than opening a Dropbox at a different time than someone else.
That being said, Path does make use of new tools around the development of product specs. "Product creates the specs, but relies a lot on engineering and design," says Samanian. "One tool used across the company is Quip, a clean and simple way to share documents. It's very lightweight. It also has a great mobile app so the specs can be edited on your phone. We continue to change them, and everyone on the team gets update every time there's a change. They can also add comments, so if there are open questions they can provide feedback and have conversations. They can ask those questions in the document, or, one thing I've seen happen which is great, is it generates conversation more in person. Some prefer to give feedback in real time, some want to digest it more and use the written language and so this tool meets the needs of different types in the office."
For these systems of internal feedback, Samanian says her main philosophy is to enable streamlined systems that still give team members flexibility. "Generally we like to stereotype roles and say designers are visual, engineers like code and writing, etc.," says Samanian. "But I actually think you have more designers who have an engineering mind-set or vice versa, so providing various ways to share feedback across all roles is very important."
To get feedback from outside current or potential users, Path uses a variety of channels that touch on different aspects of the experience. "We have a user relations team who get emails or tweets with new feature ideas from users, who also let us know which features they would pay for," says Samanian (Path is ad-free and offers premium subscription plans). "That team generates a weekly report from all those sources, and we integrate that into the product and design process. But a really important area, which we're using more than we used to, is user testing. We use both current users and people who've never heard of us. We make user experience videos and watch them go through our sign-up process, see them struggle with something or understand something really well. We share these videos and it's super powerful, especially for the design team. Just watching one person actually use the service is often more useful than aggregated bullet points of feedback."