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Continuous Feedback

The philosophy of activating advocates has to be a continuous, conscious effort, not just when launching a product. Too often the tools of social networking appear to be “check box” activities around the time of new product introduction. While, as described previously, release-related activity can drive engagement, everyday activities can as well.

For example, the product designers for IBM Lotus Notes version 8 faced a challenge. Their mission was to completely modernize the product’s user interface, or UI. Nearly the entire focus of the new release was the updated UI, so the design team was front and center of the activity during product development. Design is a very subjective aspect of software engineering, and they faced challenges on how to make decisions on the best approach for various UI elements. While taking input from various constituent groups, they also had to ensure that the result was cohesive, greater than the sum of the individual design decisions.

At the time the project started, in 2005, IBM’s research and development organization used traditional methods of evaluating the usability of our products. Often, the primary tool was subject observation of an end user working his or her way through proposed approaches to product design. A usability lab was a room with a one-way mirror, with researchers watching as a series of tasks were attempted on the proposed UI.

The lead designer on Lotus Notes 8, Dr. Mary Beth Raven, recognized the opportunity that social networking provided to change the way UI research was conducted. She started a blog, eventually enhanced with other social networking tools, to share proposed design concepts and to actively engage users in the redesign.

This was an unheard of approach in the software industry. Showing potential designs in public, other than through carefully controlled marketing activity, had never been done and carried risk around what kind of expectations it would set for the final product.

Dr. Raven’s blogging created some anxiety in our organization. Product developers were not used to having their ideas openly discussed, dissected, and critiqued. Management was concerned whether customers would perceive our experimentation as indecisiveness. Questions arose as to whether the input we would receive from the market would be truly representative. Concern was expressed that we would be “tipping our hand” to competition prematurely.

Undeterred, Dr. Raven and her team eventually published hundreds of blog entries discussing planned or potential new features over the subsequent years. Every one of the blog posts received thousands of visits, as the product’s user community itself was engaged in a transparent dialogue around the future of the product. Most important of all, Dr. Raven and her team responded to comments and even posted revisions on designs—revisions made specifically in response to feedback received on the blog.

For example, the design team had planned to have a pop-up dialog asking users if they wanted to automatically add to their workspace any databases that they opened. The response on the blog was an overwhelming: “No, do not ask this bothersome question.” So, the design team decided not to add the pop-up. Dr. Raven communicated this decision in a blog post long before the product shipped:

“Okay, so, it’s pretty clear that this ‘ask Samantha if she wants to add a database’ is a really unpopular idea. To be fair (to us designers) the mental model we’d been using was that of things like a document—when you go to close it, you get asked if you want to save it. But okay, fine. Browser mental model it is.”2

A positive benefit was that many, many more customers were “bought in” to the finished product. Every customer who had been part of the discussion of what the product should look like could immediately represent the result to his or her own organization, demonstrating that IBM had listened to the personal feedback and made the product better as a result. This inbound advocacy (directed to IBM) demonstrated the same principal as the outbound advocacy described earlier: Humans listen to humans.

As a result, IBM Lotus Notes 8—actually 8.5.3 at the time of this writing—has proven to command aggressive customer adoption cycles. For Notes 8.5.3, adoption exceeded 70 percent of the customer base within 12 months of delivery, according to IBM tracking studies, download statistics, and technical support calls, far greater than expectations and typical software adoption rates.

Today, many Internet companies do live testing of potential user interface designs, such as the Google “A | B test” method described in Chapter 1, “Why Social Business?” However, the pioneering effort to take the wisdom of the crowds, where potential users could discuss possibilities not just with IBM but with each other, leveraged all three tenets of social business: engaged, transparent, and agile.

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