How to use interactive forms in the product development feedback cycle
In product development, there is (or at least should be) a constant stream of feedback coming from your users to inform your development decisions. This feedback can come from a variety of formats depending on where you are in the development cycle. You might start out with interviews, contextual inquiry and observation, progress to storyboards and prototyping, but sooner or later you'll be able to put something in users' hands.
Recently, I began a pilot site evaluation for a product I'm working on at TI where I started using interactive pdf forms to gather and compile data from my pilots. In addition to site visits, email, and web surveys, interactive forms can fill a nice little niche in the feedback cycle. For example, surveys are perfect vehicles for assessing product performance at specified intervals. (e.g., alpha release, beta release, end of project release, etc.) Observation and email communication can be a great tool for getting a sense of how people are using your product, their general likes and dislikes, as well as where your product may need improvement, but managing all the feedback can be a daunting process, especially if you have a large number of customers.
This is where an interactive usage form can come in handy - the form can gather a set of common data across a range of users, and provide a way to analyze that data in an quantitative way. This can be a great supplement to the kind of summative assessment you get from a survey, and can also put some of your anecdotal observations into perspective. For instance, feedback forms may reveal some usage patterns you didn't expect in your product. You may also find some correlations amomg certain usage patterns, environmental variables, and product bugs that would be difficult to uncover in an SQA lab. As I go through an example, all this may start to make some sense...
The following example should give you the basic idea of how to:
- Design and configure an interactive pdf form
- Deploy the form to your end users
- Combine submitted form data into a spreadsheet
- Use Excel to analyze the submitted data
First of all, you will need to be able to create interactive forms. I am a big Adobe user, and I have access to most of their desktop software though my work. You will need a copy of Acrobat Professional - more specifically, you will need Adobe LiveCycle Designer. I believe this comes with Acrobat Pro, but you can always download a trial version to get started. In any case, LiveCycle Designer gives you the capability to create the form and configure how submitted data will be named, etc.
As you can see, LiveCycle Designer is a WYSIWYG form editor; drag different control widgets on screen from the library panel, then edit their properties in the object panel. Depending on how your users will access the form, you can add whatever form elements make sense for your particular product. All the values will eventually be dumped into a spreadsheet, so it may help to think about what types of information you will want to pull out later for comparison, then work backwards to determine what fields to place in the form.
In my experience, I've asked users to fill out the form everytime they use the product. Users keep the form in an easy-to-access location (e.g., their desktop) and when they finish using the product, they fill out fields and submit the form via the button located in the pdf. This model allows you to see what parts of your product people are using, any problems they've encountered, and how they rate each experience with your product. If you make the form short and concise, I've found people are more than willing to use it, usually while the details are still fresh in their memory.
A Note about submitting the form: There are a few ways to get data returned from the form... I've used the email submit button, which basically extracts all the form data, and sends it as an attachment to an email address you specify. You can configure this to attach a pdf form, xml file, or xdp file. You can also configure the form to submit the data to a URL where you will need to setup a server with OLED DB and some mechanism for stuffing it in the database. This is probably the way to go if you plan on using this for a long term customer feedback solution. I believe you can also configure the form without any submit button, and direct users to save the pdf file, and return it as an attachment. Since most people will be using the Free Adobe Reader software to populate the form data, you will have to enable "Usage Rights" in Adobe Reader in order for users to save the form with field data intact. This can be found in Acrobat Pro under the "Advanced" menu.
After you've done some testing to make sure you form is working correctly, you can deploy the file to your end users. Soonafter, you should start receiving usage reports in your inbox...
After you've received a batch of forms, save the attachments with unique filenames to a directory.
Now, in Acrobat Pro, choose Forms -> Manage From Data -> Merge Data Files into Spreadsheet. All your data will be copied into a csv file.
Each form element will be represented by a column in the spreadsheet, and each submitted form will be displayed as a row. Add an Excel worksheet to plot your data...
Now you can start to parse out the data in a meaningful way. Want to see what component people are using the most? Want to see what OS your users are running? How about problem encountered with your product cross referenced with certain usage patters? It's all in the data, and depending on your Excel proficiency, you can pull out this data and make these correlations fairly easily.
Interactive forms can be a great addition to your toolbox for gathering user feedback and usage reports from the field. Even if you aren't going to use them directly for customer feedback, they can be used as common templates for trip reports, conference notes, or any situation where you need to unify the framework for reporting data.