Getting visitor feedback

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As head of Web content management and operations for Lexington, Ky.-based Lexmark International, a computer printing solutions company, Susan Fey strives to make every visitor’s experience at useful, efficient and pleasant. Fey and her advisers figured a good way to gauge how the site’s content stacks up would be to solicit direct, daily feedback from customers.

The company implemented a quantitative page-rater tool, which allowed customers to comment on whether or not they liked a page. However, the tool couldn’t tell Fey why visitors did or didn’t like the page. So she paired the tool with an open-ended form to encourage qualitative comments. Still, that only generated irrelevant inquiries for product specs or technical support.

"It wound up creating so much work re-routing these comments that I had to take it off the site," Fey said.

This is not a unique problem in Web content management, according to industry experts.

"Soliciting feedback about site content is no easy task," said Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Norman Nielsen Group. "But the more open-ended you are, the more likely you’ll find what the true problems of your Web site are."

Nielsen suggested that Lexmark might not have enough feedback tools for product information and technical support—even if it seemed like it did. "It’s a cry for help that [customers] can’t find what they’re looking for," Nielsen said.

Fortunately, the ever-changing nature of the Web makes such mistakes easy to correct. And those who have made or witnessed them are often willing to pass along lessons learned. Here’s some advice on how best to solicit and manage Web site feedback:

• Keep it simple and specific. Too often, visitors are subjected to surveys that are overly long and cumbersome, Nielsen said. "It’s much better to ask one specific, simple question at a time that gets to the point quickly," he said.

Also, when designing and implementing feedback tools, develop consistent messaging and nomenclature throughout your site, said Kathryn Clark, manager of user experience for "Sometimes we’ve used nomenclature that’s confusing to our visitors, and we find out because they’re not giving us the kinds of answers we expected," Clark said. "We now spend a significant amount of time crafting our feedback messaging, and it has immensely improved the quality of the feedback we receive."

• Invite visitors to provide opinons."Don’t just thrust feedback upon them," Clark said. "Make them feel special and cared for. And be sure to let them know that their feedback is useful to you, that it’s going to make a difference. Some sites even give visitors significant incentives, although that’s rare in b-to-b."

• Make sure feedback is routed to the right people in your company. Sun Microsystems, provider of hardware, software and services, uses a page-rating tool at the bottom of pages on its Web site.

Feedback comes in three basic areas, said Ben Hansen, director of usability for site performance, mechanical health (broken links, etc.) and customer satisfaction. "Usually, you’ll have a structure so that different areas are handled by different groups. Routing them through all together can cause confusion and more work than is necessary."

Large companies often have proprietary systems to collect and send feedback to the right people, Hansen said. "But there are many vendors out there to help you process feedback efficiently and effectively. There’s even public domain software available, called Jitterbug, that many organizations, large and small, use prolifically."

• Don't rely on just one tool. IBM’s Clark said her team uses multiple instruments to gather feedback about the site’s content and design, including page-raters on product pages and pop-up surveys that are triggered by specific visitor behaviors. Clark tracks the feedback gathered and gives it to the appropriate Web site manager. "Getting feedback from different places and in different ways gives you a much better view of everything that is going on," she said.

• Follow up the feedback with results. Let visitors know when you’ve used their feedback to make changes in your site’s content and design, said Martin Hardee, director of customer experience for

"We did this when we recently completely redesigned Sun’s Web presence," Hardee said. "We solicited their comments, fixed what they didn’t like and e-mailed to let them know what we improved and that they were a great help to the process. Such consideration almost always builds trust and loyalty."

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