The driving forces
It isn’t just our own self-indulgences that make us want to give feedback. We’re encouraged to share by the great entities that have shaped the Internet into what it is today. Yelp’s entire business model relies on feedback from patrons. Facebook just expanded its Like button to 6 new reactions for you to express feedback through an emoticon. The SEO community pushed the notion that commenting activity on a piece of content could improve a site’s organic search rankings. Posing a question at the end of a blog post was, and continues to be, a common practice to encourage written feedback from users.
User-generated feedback is in no short supply. In fact it serves as a key building block of a huge number of relatively new, thriving businesses (think Uber, Airbnb, ZocDoc).
But what about the flip side of user feedback?
What about the feedback websites give back to users?
The importance of giving feedback
Think about the worst experience you’ve ever had buying something online. All you want to do is get those concert tickets/cowboy boots/vintage copper mugs as quickly and painlessly as possible. You fill in your shipping and billing information, gleefully hit the Purchase button – only to get an error message. Your brain releases low levels of cortisol as you anxiously scroll up, looking for your mistake. You see no red X’s, no highlighted form fields…just one big box at the top saying, “Please review the errors in your information.”
It’s fundamentally important to let a user know where the error is and exactly how to fix it. This is a long-standing best practice in UI design but it’s one that is often overlooked. Now that users are engaging in ever more complex tasks on small screens and mobile devices, testing the design on a range of devices can help detect issues like error messages that display outside the user’s view. Giving clear feedback as to where the error is and how to fix it is critical.
Here’s another scenario: you’re browsing around your favorite online shop and are ready to make a purchase. You click Add to Cart and see the page start “thinking” and then…nothing. Did you actually buy something or has online shopping occupied your subconscious? Or is your Internet connection to blame? Befuddled, you scan the screen for some indication that you’re not losing your mind.
Giving users feedback that they completed an action is a visual affirmation that the task was successful. Without it, feelings of doubt may drive users to unintentionally repeat an action until they feel confident that the activity was processed. In the worst case, the lack of feedback can lead users to distrust your site entirely.
Fun with feedback
Even when the feedback you’re giving users isn’t positive, taking a creative spin can be fun and refreshing. It’s an opportunity to showcase your brand’s personality and impart something memorable.
After arriving on your site via a blog post, your user clicks on a link to another page on your site. She is served a 404-error page, basically the equivalent of a dead end sign. The feedback you’re giving is that the page does not exist, but that intrinsic message can take many different forms.
Even the blandest of feedback, “Page not found,” can deliver a touch of intrigue or humor.
Many brands have seized the opportunity to showcase their personalities in this format. Conducting a search on Google for “best 404 error” generates ~6.5 million results. Not only are companies thinking up creative ways to present the 404 error page, they’re actually earning extra attention for it.
Understanding and analyzing the usability patterns of your site can reveal elegant ways to augment your user’s journey and create a “stickier” experience. Consider the visual feedback that Airbnb gives users when they select different properties:
A task like booking accommodations involves a lot of browsing, researching, and comparing, usually with multiple tabs open. As a result, remembering which properties you’ve already viewed can be challenging. Airbnb solves for this by simply giving feedback: when a user views a property, that property’s price tag turns gray. The act of giving feedback in this example is based in usability data and executed through design.
While giving feedback to users is generally thought of as reactionary (e.g. after a user completes an online form, views a search result, clicks a link, etc.), some online experiences kick start the journey before the user does much of anything. The concept of empty state is a great example of this, especially popular in mobile app experiences. The idea is to use the “empty state” display (usually what happens immediately after a user downloads an app) to prompt users to take action. Whether that’s starting a search, storing payment information, scheduling a task, or finding friends, the experience is nudging the user to do something. PREactionary feedback, if you will.
There are a lot of incredibly elegant solutions out there that give users the cues they need to accomplish tasks, doing so with flair and confidence.
However, this does not negate the thousands of painfully designed ecommerce sites with unforgiving shopping cart experiences, or online forms that can feel more like an attack on our intelligence than an invitation to connect.
As we push users to engage with increasingly complex experiences, we must demonstrate our aptitude to help, to guide, and to be human. Otherwise, we’ll hear it in their feedback.