By Erik Egbertson on December 3, 2009
Many professionals use blogs as a two-way communication tool, reaching out to users and asking for their feedback, thereby becoming more user centered. Keeping content updated is paramount in attracting and retaining a regular blog audience, but how can designers leverage a blog to support their projects rather than letting the blog steal time away from design activities? Can a blog be used similarly to a traditional focus group in the design process? Can it answer new questions or evaluate design proposals?
As a designer, I often need to validate some functional requirements or get customer feedback on a set of high-level design approaches. In some instances, I may be looking for something as simple as a name for an element or function that defies classification. I see these situations as opportunities to post to the blog and solicit feedback.
In order for the blog to be an effective UCD tool, I’ll first introduce the design problem with a scenario, key features, and related tasks. The second part of the post will explain the options and/or pose questions to the readers, encouraging them to use blog comments for further discussion. Next, I’ll moderate the responses and counter-responses that follow any individual’s blog comment, just as I would in a focus group. This exchange can provide useful information such as new use cases, unforeseen problems, or requirements essential to the emerging design.
In my experience, there are pros and cons to using a blog as a design tool:
- Wide audience – A blog has the potential to reach hundreds of users knowledgeable in the topics of interest. For example, readers of the Inside the Factory blog span over 90 countries and account for hundreds of views per post.
- Speed – You can post an entry and begin gathering information from it in a short amount of time. Responses often start coming in the same day, allowing the design process to proceed quickly. Within 24 hours, you’ll have a clearer picture of the user’s mental model.
- Frankness – Users are generally much more comfortable being critical on-line than in larger groups or in face-to-face meetings. You may have to watch for cases where one user seems to influence others, but it’s more common to see users taking opposing positions and leveraging different arguments related to the problem. Again, this mirrors the interactions in a good focus group.
- Qualifying individuals – Unlike the selection process for forming a focus group, blog interaction is uncontrolled. You can’t screen individuals to confirm that they reflect specific characteristics of your personas or that they have the requisite experience on this design problem. If your inquiry applies to a broad range of potential users, you probably don’t need to worry about qualifying users. If you do need to qualify individuals, though, it may be possible to match them with demographic data gathered from previous surveys or test sessions. Another option is to direct the readers to a more formal survey at the end of your post, using the survey to screen for particular characteristics.
- Disclosure – Because blog readers are not under a non-disclosure agreement, use careful language when discussing anything that is a work in progress. In special cases, you may add some “fine print” disclaimers at the end of the post that specify the discussion in the blog as separate from a promise of future delivery. Users typically understand this, and they value the exchange of ideas and the possibility of informing future designs.
- Blog jacking – Sometimes a customer talks about something other than the topic of your post (perhaps an existing feature or some unanswered wish), and may post links from other forums supporting their case. Although this seems disruptive, you can view it as another form of feedback: you can reflect back what you’ve heard from the individual who goes off topic, record the issue internally, and then gently nudge the conversation back to the topic at hand. These are the times when you fulfill the role of moderator.
In summary, users appreciate the directness and two-way exchange that a blog can offer. For the designer, a blog can be a useful tool to solicit feedback to inform your designs, but should not replace more thorough upfront research or user testing.
Are there any other designers out there who solicit design feedback through their blogs? What are your experiences?