I've written about the challenges of capitalizing on at-scale user feedback both academically and on the search blog (busted post alas, edit when fixed).  One way to listen to users is to open up your bug tracking system to the world, as done by Mozilla.org.  While this results in a great deal of information about user needs and pain points, it results in hundreds (if not thousands) of duplicates scattered around the bug database and associated component hierarchy.

We do a lot of structured feedback data collection at Microsoft, in search and across the organization, within Microsoft and in our customer's environments.  As I've worked in this space for search, some good folks over in the operating system team have taught me a few tricks. Their approach is now available to the world of Vista users at the Windows Vista Scenario Voting site.

Collecting feedback in this way has numerous advantages over plain textual feedback or structured bug reports:
  • A user doesn't have to be a programmer to put their feedback into the right place, maximizing it's chance of impact
  • Communicating key scenarios focuses users on goals the software producer is committed to supporting
  • Feedback is encouraged to target key parts of the process, speaking the user language and using recognition not recall.  That is, rather than requiring the user to remember the arbitrary "Step 4 of the network setup wizard", a plain language set of steps is provided
That last point may need a bit of elaboration.  Here's what the scenarios page lists for View a summary of the latest content from RSS feeds.

  1. Visit http://channel9.msdn.com/
  2. View the RSS feed available from the page
  3. Subscribe to it.
  4. After an RSS feed has been subscribed to, view a summary of the latest content using the mini Explorer (bar on the side of IE, found by clicking the Favorites icon.)
Feedback can then easily refer to specific steps that are causing the user's problems.  I expect gathering user reactions to and wishes for software products to be a key strategy for product success in the coming years.  Already, some hypothesize that the ease of development and feedback loops are a key determinant of the web's success.