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User Feedback – why is it important?

There is something that I noticed while designing web apps and user experiences. The client sometimes has particular requests about what font to use, what images and colors, and how the interactions should happen.

And if I probe why do they want things to be done like that, I most of the time get the answer that this is how they like it.

In a way, it makes sense. It is your site, your brand, and it should represent what you stand for and show your brand’s personality.

But when you are offering a service, and you want to help your visitors achieve something, you need to put their needs above your desire to have the website a specific way.

Your visitors expect to read your site easily. They expect a button to look like a button. And a clickable link to obviously be a clickable link. It would help if you found a balance between being familiar and being unique. If you go all the way on the “unique” side, your visitors will be very confused by your offer and wander someplace else. So this very distinct design is not really serving your customers, is it?

What is a better way to go about this?

You can ask your visitors for feedback and listen to what they have to say. If they find it challenging to make use of your offer, you need to change that, even if it’s something you like a lot about your web site.

You also need to ask more people, not just one. How many more? It depends on the size of your business, but the more you can ask, the more reliable the data becomes. And then, you can build a design that both showcases your brand and what is unique about it but also serves your customers in a way that they expect and understand.

I know this is not always easy. I’ve been guilty of this approach myself, many, many times in the past. I was blinded by how “elegant” I thought my solution was that I disregarded the feedback that showed it was not working for my potential customers.

If your web presence is just a way to express yourself, your art, your ideas, then it’s OK to break the rules and do something “crazy.” Just know that serves your need to express and bee seen. But if you want to provide a service, the marketplace will quickly teach you a lesson, when very few people engage with your content, because it is too hard, or too different.

In today’s world, it is easy to create a website where you can have both worlds: customer-centered and another that is “self-expression” centered. And they can both work together and support each other. But now your audience has a choice. Do they want to explore the new, edgy thing, or they want to benefit from the offer that will serve them quickly?

In conclusion: ask for feedback from your user! And be grateful for the feedback you get, especially if it’s “not good,” because it points you to things you can change that may lead to dramatic improvement of engagement with your offerings.  

Building a learning community website

The Challenge

Build a learning community website with the following requirements: 

  • subscription-based (behind a paywall)
  • forum for discussion
  • library with classes and materials
  • live calls with the students and the teachers
  • newsletter 
  • easy to use for both the young and older audiences 
  • accessible 

The solution

– base platform: Joomla!. In my experience, it is more secure than WordPress. It is component-based, which to me, makes more sense when you want to build a platform. Also, because it is component-based, it can be faster than WordPress that has to load all the plugins all the time.

– for the forum, I’ve used Kunena. I cannot say I like it a lot, but it was the natural choice for a Joomla! based platform. The interface is also common enough to make sense for an older audience. I have considered using Discourse, but it failed for the accessibility requirement.

– DocMan was the choice to manage our document library. The good part is that it can protect documents from being publicly accessible. The bad part: it feels clunky to navigate on the front end, and for some reason, the download feature is not working correctly on iPhones (but that could be Apple’s fault)

– after trying a couple of things, Zoom is the clear winner and choice for the Video Live Call that we have at least once a month.

– for the newsletter, the AcyMailing component is the professional choice. I like the flexibility of it better than MailChimp, and we get to have all the data. The challenge here was that our server is not doing well with email deliverability, so we did have to get an external mailing service like Mandrill (from MailChimp) to plug into this component. A big lesson learned here: if email deliverability is important to you and your users go PRO with a paid service. It will save you a lot of pain and headache. And in the long run, it may actually save you money by simply providing a reliable experience for your userbase. 

– ease of use was accomplished with custom modifications for the mobile version and by using a user experience that most people are accustomed to. For example, I have discovered that Discourse tends to not make sense for people used to the older forum software.

– accessibility meant we could not use Discourse. And to also consider a high contrast theme for specific users.

– for handling the subscriptions, I have used Community Builder and their CB Subs plugin. I cannot say I love it, but after a lot of customization work, it does the job right and reliably.

Add-ons and Customizations

– added a calendar to help better organize events in the community. DPCalendar does a great job with this.

– added a private messaging system – Udeimm – the code base is super old, and it tries to maintain backward compatibility with older Joomla! software. But it works. And with some custom work, it works very well. I like the fact that it integrates with CB and Kunena. (Oopsy… looks like development for this component has ended. Which is a shame. It was the best PM solution for Joomla!)

– for the forum, I had to code it a tagging system to allow users to tag each other using the @username system. This increases engagement and makes it easier for the users to let each other know if there is something of interest on the forum

– I have installed JChatSocial – it was a “cool thing” in the beginning, but I don’t see it as a popular feature. Also, it is not accessible, and the developers do not plan to make it so. With this plugin, I also have some performance concerns. I don’t think it can work for large communities. 

– added a custom made notification system to make it easier for a user to know when something important is happening: like an event, or announcement or someone tagging them or sending them a private message

– added web push notifications (for those that use Android or the desktop) – allows for better engagement and for users to more quickly respond to what is happening on the platform

– added a custom Joomla component to allow users to track their progress through the material on the website: the classes, the events, and assigned homework

Why a custom build? 

If I were to start again today, I would probably look for a platform that has all my requirements built in. I would also consider a hosted service. This would free me up from having to maintain, update, and secure the software. And I could use the free time to engage in other community-building activities. 

However, I am a nerd at heart, so I would miss the flexibility that I currently have to get my hands dirty and customize the entire experience in the way that I or our users like it. Because of this, the platform has grown and adapted to our users instead of forcing the users to adapt to a “ready-made” solution. 

This is a choice that I constantly have to make: do I want to be “the developer” or “the manager.” The developer can feel more rewarding as it appeals to my coding skills. But the manager is enticing too as get to focus more on the human aspect of it, and less on the technical side. 

I will conclude that I am proud of what I have built for WalkWithMeNow.com. 🙂