When planning for the year, don’t forget to survey your customers

January is usually a time for businesses and organizations to look ahead. What will the new year bring? And what are our goals?

And if you did not do so already at the end of 2013, the beginning of a new year does not just involve pondering such questions but some amount of planning, too. Planning usually involves writing out goals and requirements, developing business proposals, estimating work, planning resources, and developing a timeline for getting things done. And even if you’re a particularly agile team or organization, you still do your improvisation without some kind of plan and framework.

But what is the basis of all of this thinking and planning? One important factor should be an annual survey.

At Red Stamp, where I lead UX design and product management for web and mobile apps, I own the responsibility of surveying our customers. But although surveying does not sound particularly glamorous, I can assure you that it is actually extremely rewarding. I’ve been doing surveys for years, since I started doing them for MinneWebCon, a web conference that I directed at the time. Surveys bring you one crucial step closer to the reason why you do your work in the first place: to help customers do something that is important to them.

When we are in a business or organization, it’s easy to slip into the mindset that the work we do is for ourselves or our clients. But it never really is. We’re designing and developing for other people out there in the “real world”— people who do not care about our lofty sales or attendance goals, our grand design objectives, or our insanely brilliant creativity. What they care about is having something work, not waste their time, and not cause them pain during the process. And, if they’re used to your service or product already, they want this to continue happening in a predictable way. They don’t want to be freaked out by something too new or unexpected.

That’s a lot to figure out on your own, no matter how gifted or creative you are. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible to do on your own.

That’s why a survey is so great! It gives you direct access to your customers, their opinions, and their suggestions. It allows you to understand what is working and what isn’t, and what should stay the same and what could change. And if you ask for a way to follow up with them later, it also provides another invaluable opportunity: you can circle back later for more information or clarification, and keep the conversation going.

So do yourself a favor and if the beginning of your 2014 does not already include doing a product survey, you still have plenty of time to do one. It does not need to take a ton of time. Just write ten questions, use an online survey service, and email your customers or users a link to the survey. Give them a week to reply (I usually send a second email reminder halfway through the week), and then study the results. And be sure to include both multiple choice questions that are quick to answer, as well as provide some open-ended fields where people can submit ideas or suggestions in their own words.

An annual survey will always help with your digital product planning and design. Always. At the very least, it will provide some data to back up ideas that you already had. But surveys also have the potential to provide new ideas that you would never have thought of on your own.

Related reading: Data-driven Design with an Annual Survey (Aaron Walter, 24ways.org)

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