As project managers, we often spend so much time racing to the finish that we never stop to ask if we are creating the best product possible. Too often, projects that start out promising end up with a few dozen workarounds and adjustments until the project team just wants to get it done. This production process leads to burnout and creates a frustrating experience to development teams and customers.
It is hard to slow down and collect feedback, but this insight is essential to doing good work. Here is why you need to collect feedback for your agile projects and how you can do it well.
Why is User Feedback Important?
Agile development was created with the idea that teams could collect and apply feedback as they worked. Teams that use agile management without collecting feedback are missing a key element in the development process.
As management consultant Luís Gonçalves defines it: “Agile is a process that helps teams provide quick and unpredictable responses to the feedback they receive on their project. It creates opportunities to assess a project’s direction during the development cycle.”
Project managers frequently get so caught up in breaking everything down into small pieces and racing toward the goal that they forget to take a step back and review whether or not the project is heading in the right direction.
Scrum trainer and cofounder of The Liberators Christiaan Verwijs gives examples of the types of feedback companies should be looking for. These aren’t in-depth questions, but rather questions good project managers should ask every day:
Does that feature actually solve a user’s problem and create less work for them?
Are the features intuitive, or will users be confused?
Do users find the product convenient?
What new ideas come from customer use? In what ways can certain features be improved?
While the concept of collecting user feedback seems simple, and the questions listed above are fairly basic, feedback collection is actually one of the hardest parts of agile development.
Product executive Christian Bonilla surveyed 47 product managers, almost half of whom said their biggest challenge is conducting proper market research. This significantly beat out other issues like being stretched too thin, dealing with executives and hiring top talent. Project managers are skipping the feedback step because they are deprioritizing it — and it is affecting the work of the whole team.
Agile Teams Need to Collect Feedback Throughout Development
One of the main reasons teams fail to collect feedback is because they wait until the end of the project to review their work. Instead, effective agile development requires collecting feedback at every step along the way.
Danielle Goodman at Mendix says software development is the “embodiment of the butterfly effect,” meaning small changes at the start of the project will result in dramatic differences by the end. By not collecting feedback and insight from key stakeholders during the agile production process, your team could end up delivering a dramatically different product than the client expects in the end.
“Management must accept the fact that if the feature team doesn't do some analysis and learning up front (not a lot, but some), the team will refactor/reanalyze/redesign as they proceed, all of which might take more time than the managers desire,” writes management consultant Johanna Rothman.
When managers are so focused on a deadline that they don’t give teams time to adapt and improve, they are doomed to lose money when work needs to be redone.
Software engineer Jason Pollentier at Revelry Labs did a great job of breaking down the math of the feedback process and emphasizing the importance of short sprints with feedback collected along the way.
If you break a two-month project into two month-long sprints, the only time you have to collect feedback is at the one-month break, he explains. However, if you take a two-month project and break it into eight one-week sprints, you have seven opportunities to evaluate and collect feedback. “It’s in our interest to make our sprints as short as they can be, while keeping them long enough to deliver something useful,” Pollentier writes.
If you are developing an agile project with valuable sprint lengths, you shouldn’t have a problem building time and space for user and developer feedback.
Who Do You Collect Feedback From?
Agile teams aren’t always sure where to start in the feedback collection process.
The team at Scaled Agile explains there are external and internal customers involved in agile development. External customers are the direct buyers. These are B2C customers who download apps and B2B customers who order custom software solutions. Internal customers are coworkers, peers, and employees. You improve a system or develop an automated system as part of their workflows. Your target customer will factor significantly into how you collect feedback and who is in the room to provide it.
Along with collecting feedback from customers, agile teams also need to pull insights from developers. These insights cover how the project is being done and what internal teams think could be changed to improve the end result.
Rodney West, senior consultant at Isos Technology, says feedback also applies to the operations of the team. He highly recommends the use of continuous feedback for employees and managers rather than semi-regular performance reviews.
While a post-mortem can help teams learn what went wrong and performance reviews help employees grow, neither are useful for the current project if they are six months away. By regularly discussing employee and manager performance while looking for ways to improve, companies can constantly work to streamline their operations.
Wayne Brockbank, professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, identified five feedback loops that occur within companies. He starts with loops between individuals and works out to loops across teams, departments, and business units.
When everyone is able to communicate their needs and provide suggestions for their peers to improve, companies can keep growing even if it’s not performance review season.
How to Develop a Healthy Feedback Loop
Many companies try to collect feedback, but aren’t able to do it effectively. They either reach out at the wrong times or ask the wrong questions that confuse customers.
“Feedback loops are mechanisms that are used to validate and get feedback about the software development process,” writes Stackify founder and CEO Matt Watson. “The goal is to get both positive and negative feedback that can be immediately fed back into the process.”
Of course, these feedback loops can be applied outside of the software implementation process. The bones of the processes are there regardless of your department or project.
Keep the Feedback Constant
Feedback collection is ongoing; it’s not a one-and-done task. The feedback you collect at one point could be completely wrong at another. “Unless you get feedback on an ongoing basis, you risk building something your customers and stakeholders do not want or need,” explains Christopher Lomas, global digital strategy leader at Mercer.
PMs need to stay connected to their sources if they want to ensure the quality and freshness of the information. Getting feedback isn't something you can do once — it needs to be part of the bigger picture.
“You cannot deliver quality customer experience if you don’t understand the needs of your customers and create products and services to meet those needs,” agrees Gerry McGovern, author of “Top Tasks: A How-to Guide.” Agile companies listen.
Survey a Diverse Group of Users
If you want to keep a steady stream of feedback coming down the pipeline, you need to continuously engage users and stakeholders.
Collecting user feedback is a numbers game, writes Sarena Brown at Vision Critical. The best way to collect feedback quickly (shortening the loop) is to have a team of engaged users who are ready to make their voices heard. And the best way to do that is to prove that you are listening and applying what they say. “Users know the value of their feedback and they want to know if their feedback is being utilized,” says Brown.
She also emphasizes that customers want to be consulted, not spied on. It is better to provide clarity about what you want instead of trying to collect it in a non-transparent way.
Get Feedback Quickly
Speed is also your friend when working with user feedback. Robbin Schuurman, product leadership consultant and scrum trainer, refers to the feedback process as your time-to-learn.
Most companies focus on time-to-market, or the amount of time it takes to produce and launch a product. However, time-to-learn refers to the amount of time it takes to get feedback after going to market. Short time-to-learn windows allow companies to gather information and make changes quickly — which customers will notice and appreciate.
Turn Insights Into Actions
If you want users to keep providing insights and valuable feedback, then you need to show them how important their ideas are to you.
“Far too often I see how teams and their product owner either turn a blind eye to the learning or don’t act upon what they learn,” writes scrum master and agile coach Magnus Dahlgren. “I’d go as far as saying that this means they learn nothing!”
He shares several examples of developers bringing problems to the floor or users suggesting improvements only to be ignored by the core project management team. They know there are issues, but nothing gets done because that would mean missing the deadline.
Collecting feedback seems like a simple concept that most companies should do, but few agile teams have the time and resources to do it effectively. Follow these steps to improve your feedback collection and see how it changes your project results.