“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Although there’s no evidence that Ford ever said these words, this line is still attributed to him as proof that innovation can be achieved without customer input.
Having said that, customers’ input is great, and a deep understanding of users’ needs is the foundation for building a product that users love.
Customers generally know what they want, and if they don’t, they at least understand their problems — they just don’t know how to articulate their wishes.
My team and I tried our best to listen and to understand our users’ needs as we were building our own product, Ludwig. What we learned is that there are three main ways to understand what users want.
Being a Visionary Genius
If you are a genius, congrats! You can stop reading here. Unfortunately, this is not our case. At Ludwig, we’re not geniuses, just hard and smart workers. This means that, unlike real geniuses, we had to figure out what our users wanted the hard way, i.e. by talking to them and inferring the answers from their behaviors.
The “Figure-Out-How-Users-Interact-With-Your-Product” Way
It is no secret that app and website creators need to figure out how users behave and interact with their products. Understanding what pages are the most popular or where users click is a great way to build a product that suits users’ needs best. While there are honest ways of collecting and using users’ data (I’ll call it “the Gandalf way”), there are also less transparent, or shady, ways of profiling users’ behavior (I’ll call this “the Saruman way”). Facebook data scandal is an example of how profiling can be filthy, hateful, and a huge red flag on how our data should be treated.
Actually, you don’t need to have a very complicated tracking system, pay for expensive software, or get sensible data on your users. Our goal wasn’t to set up the perfect click-counting machine that kept track of everything that happened on our website but simply make sense of users’ behavior. We keep track of just a few metrics so that we don’t get overwhelmed, and I personally prefer the simplest ones (i.e. with fewer variables).
Our stack for understanding users’ behavior and metrics is currently made of:
- Google Analytics: Almost every single website owner in the world uses Google Analytics to track their users’ behavior, so do we. Data are completely safe and anonymized, and you have plenty of information to mine. It took us a while to set it up correctly to track the specific events that you want to keep track of (e.g. how many Italian users clicked on the dictionary function today). We don’t track too many metrics. We set a number of conversions that are reached when a user is registered, buys a subscription, or downloads our app. The thing I like the least about Google Analytics is Google knowing too much about our business metrics. My team and I discuss this a lot and will probably develop an in-house solution.
- Kibana: This is the data visualization plugin for Elasticsearch (a search engine based on Lucene). It is currently one of the best candidates to free us from Google Analytics. We use Kibana for a lot of things: to monitor several metrics, to make sense of Ludwig searches, and to infer if the response from Ludwig was satisfactory for our users.
- Stripe: Stripe is the web standard for managing payments and subscriptions. They take a huge commission on every transaction but, given that is very safe and reliable, it’s worth the cost of not having to handle credit cards and payments. From Stripe, we can keep track of who is paying, how much, and from where.
- Sendinblue: We use it to keep track of email marketing metrics, see how many subscribers open our emails, how many readers click on the links, and how many people reply. Since we personally hate receiving useless emails, weekly newsletters, and pushy updates from the services we subscribe to, we decided to not abuse our users’ patience. We email our users only when we have to communicate something compelling (if you exclude the technical emails for registration and password recovery), which happens infrequently. Contrary to what 99% of email marketers think, we believe that the stereotypical weekly newsletter, theoretically made to create engagement, actually repels readers (or at least would repel me as a reader), customers and engagement. In fact, in our case, not being pushy paid off, and our users appreciate it. Our opening rates (approximately 40%) and high clicks (7%) double the industry average, plus we have a lot of people answering. This last aspect brings us to the next point: talk to your users.
Talking to Users
Luckily, we didn’t have to put a lot of effort into it. Probably because we don’t write them often, users write to us spontaneously.
Our users love talking to us, and we love talking to them. Roberta (my co-founder) and I personally replied to more than 6000 feedback emails each. Yeah, that’s a lot of feedback that has to be dealt with. Sometimes it’s overwhelming and time-consuming, but also rewarding. During the last 4 years, I even established personal friendships with some of our users.
The feedback we receive ranges from “I am a fashion blogger, why don’t you add Vanity Fair and Vogue as language sources?” to “How long should I wait to have Ludwig for Android? Please make it available as soon as you can!”, “Make Ludwig free, plz!”, “Can I use it to translate from English to French?”.
As a rule-of-thumb, you don’t take all of your users’ feedback literally.
Like I said before, users perfectly know what they want, though they might not always be able to articulate their wishes with precision. Keeping this in mind is key, and the only way to circumvent the problem is to ask specific questions. For example, when a few users told us they were using Ludwig on their browsers, we figured out that we needed to build a Chrome Extension so that Ludwig is more seamlessly integrated into the writing workflow.
If you ask the right questions, you’ll get excellent information that will help you glean new insights on how to evolve your product.
The Secret Ingredient
There is no secret ingredient, sorry! It’s about doing the same things over and over and improving the process. A/B testing is a great way to move fast and get better day by day. We do some A/B testing, but we could definitely do more. Good luck with your own work!