Mar 30

3D Dot Voting

Dot voting is a simple and powerful tool for consensus

I love dot voting. Although telling people to stick dots on their favourite concepts may sound more like playschool than work, it’s a great way to reach group consensus at the end of a workshop. I use it all the time.

But sometimes dot voting just doesn’t work.

Say you’re dealing with senior business people used to making complex decisions after considering lots of data. The simplicity of dot voting feels like a fraud to them, not empirical, not grounded in their world of numerical analysis.

Two modifications can make it work. First, allow them to score ideas against multiple criteria. Secondly, give them immediate feedback on scores to help inform the final dot vote. And all on a workshop timescale.

Is it possible? I think so. Welcome to dot voting in three dimensions.

Scoring Is Easy Enough…

Your scoresheets should be attractive and easy to use

The fundamental principle is to score each idea against multiple criteria.

My example had seven criteria – cost, effort, legal issues, user needs, differentiation, business goals and personal liking – each of which could be scored None / Low / Medium / High.

To capture the scores, make a simple, colourful and appealing scoresheet. After each idea is discussed, hand out the sheets, give people a minute and then collect them. It sounds fussy, but it works fine.

…But You Need The Magic Spreadsheet

12 people scoring 10 ideas and against 7 criteria is 840 datapoints! It’s hard to visualise the data quickly enough to use in the workshop.

This is where you need the magic spreadsheet:

  • the first worksheet contains a matrix for entering all the scores for each of the ideas – the goal here is super easy data entry.
  • the second worksheet averages scores into three groups – feasibility (cost, effort, legal issues), customer impact (user needs, differentiation) and business appetite (business goals, personal liking).
  • the final worksheet is a chart showing each idea in three dimensions – feasibility (x-axis), customer impact (y-axis) and business appetite (bubble size).

You need two people, one to facilitate and the other to enter scores in the spreadsheet as you go. Once the data’s in, adjust the axes to fit the data range and you’re left with a striking visualisation of how ideas map to criteria.

People Love Talking About Pictures

Visuals reach the parts other slides cannot reach

The visualisation is the killer element. It prompts great discussion.

Are there any obvious winners? Should we focus on ideas with most impact, or biggest feasibility? Which ideas were written off altogether? Are there any interesting outliers? Is it what we expected to see? Where are all the ideas that are easy to do but also have a massive impact?

Only now, having (i) discussed the ideas (ii) scored the ideas and (iii) discussed the aggregated scores, is everyone ready for…the final dot vote.

Fine, But Why Would I Go To This Much Trouble?

There are many benefits to dot voting in three dimensions:

  • generates confidence – it’s not scientific or objective, but it means looking at the problem from multiple angles and leads to a more rounded decision
  • fosters understanding – group discussion allows raising of technical worries so specialist concerns (e.g IT and legal) get reflected in group scores
  • contains feedback loops – discussions influence scoring, scoring influences prioritisation – which captures some of the magic of the Delphi method
  • gives the group ownership – the facilitator doesn’t take part in the voting, so the group is wholly responsible for making the decisions
  • Feedback loops lead to greater group consensusharnesses visualisation – the abstract representation of scores focuses the group on characteristics that matter most to the business
  • allows segmentation – run it with different groups and compare the results to see differences between, for example, marketing and IT viewpoints
  • accommodates introverts – no matter how strident the discussion, each individual scores alone (although extroverts can still influence discussions).

There are pitfalls of course. You need a balanced group so scores aren’t skewed. You need good criteria and sensible dimensions. And you might have to kill your favourite ideas when the group throws them out!

The Final Analysis

Does this work any better than simple dot voting? Maybe, maybe not.

In my example there was an extremely strong correlation between ‘personal liking’ and final consensus. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering (a) we all know dot voting works and (b) cognitive psychology suggests that many ‘rational’ decisions are really just manifestations of our emotional responses.

But it’s a good tool for when people don’t trust a dot vote. And, if you like that kind of thing, the data visualisation reveal is pretty fun too…

Let me know what you think about this on @myddelton. Feel free to adapt my scoresheet or spreadsheet to use your preferred criteria, dimensions and labelling. These ideas owe a debt to @leisa and @petegale.

 .

The visualisation from the magic spreadsheet

Mar 13

We Made Mistakes

Global navigation is a great way to reinforce messages

In 2007, my DJ brother Gabriel asked me to build him a website. I didn’t know at the time, but it would turn out to be the best thing I ever did.

It took ages to build. I had to learn HTML, CSS and Expression Engine. Five years later Gabriel’s a full time DJ and I’m a user experience designer.

But the best thing about building your own site is the mistakes. Our biggest ones taught me unforgettable lessons about information architecture.

Names Are Not Just About Clarity

Our first mistake was naming. He plays music that people LOVE to dance to. Not shoe gazing indie – raucous, irreverent Jamaican dancehall crossed with UK club music. What do you call the section about their shows? 

Don’t call it Events (like we did). It’s clear, but it’s dull.

Events doesn’t sound like fun party music. Events doesn’t even sound like music. Events sounds like corporate functions in conference centres with delegates drinking terrible coffee and talking about ‘getting visibility’.

What should it be called? Parties. Raves. Jams. Gigs. Dances. Shows. Anything that communicates some excitement alongside the clarity. Your global navigation is on every page so what you choose to include, and the words you use, are a huge opportunity to tell your story. Use them wisely.

Not All Content Is Created Equal

Put your most valuable content on the homepage

Our second mistake was a classic. We structured the site to match our mental model by splitting the Music section into original productions, mash-ups, remixes, refixes, mixes, live shows and radio shows. Clear. Logical. Wrong.

Why? People only care about two categories. Good music. Bad music.

Only publish the good stuff. Don’t hide it in subsections. Put the very best on your homepage so people can get at it within two seconds of arriving.

Truthfully, very few organisations have enough high quality content to justify complicated hierarchies. Much better to publish a stellar subset and leave your users wanting more. Or you risk overwhelming them with choice.

Humans Beat Computers (Sometimes)

Our third mistake – and this one is an all time favourite pastime of mine – was getting carried away with the content model. We designed our events to have titles, venues, locations, prices, addresses, concessions, web links, booking offices, artists and plenty more. We were exceptionally proud of our design.

This pride was misplaced.

Within two minutes of entering the first event we realised we didn’t have all the right information. We made some fields optional, which broke the visual design by leaving gaps where content was previously. We hacked the code with if/else statements for millions of data combinations. And it still never worked properly.

In the end, three years later, the solution was stupidly simple.

Some content is best left for humans to edit by hand

For rapidly changing content where you can’t predict the shape of the data, just have a page that a human can edit by hand. We’re good at that.

Huge Mistakes Can Bring Huge Benefits

We saved the biggest mistake until last – last year Google killed the site for being infected with malware. We hadn’t updated Expression Engine for four years and deserved what we got, so we started over. (Losing a thousand pages overnight was easier and far more effective than a content audit!).

But this isn’t about Gabriel’s site anyway. It’s not even about information architecture. It’s really about how I learned to learn from my own mistakes.

Owning up to my bad decisions was horrible at first. It made me feel like I had given bad advice and often felt easier to argue back. The turning point was a conversation where Gabriel pointed out how much it took to maintain the site and I was practically shouting in denial. He, the client, was right.

Over time, I got better at admitting mistakes and started to relish finding flaws in my own thinking. Welcoming criticism is the hardest thing I’ve ever learned to do  and I’m still working on it  but nothing has improved my work quicker.

Let me know what you think on @myddelton. Thanks to Gabriel for putting up with me, @MagsHanley for encouraging us to share IA war stories and @Mike_FTW and @slowtext for their great podcast, Let’s Make Mistakes.

Dec 07

Escaping The Vacuum

Escaping The VacuumBefore 2007, I lived in a vacuum. The internet was overwhelming me.

I bookmarked interesting websites and completely forget to check them again. I read life-changing articles that disappeared into the ether. I constantly felt like something important was evaporating behind the currently-open tab.

Google Reader changed everything for me in 2007. It remade the internet at a human scale by connecting me to real life designers and developers. In six months I learned HTML/CSS, discovered Don’t Make Me Think, found Avinash Kaushik and got a job running the websites for a government agency.

Three years later the iPhone, Twitter, Reeder and Instapaper did the same thing. Just in time, because 2011 was another crazy year.

It’s Play Or Get Played

Even with the right tools it’s never easy to stay ahead of the game. Twitter, Instapaper, Google+, Reeder, Flickr, even email – they’re all out to crush you.

All over the internet, people are panicking and making big statements about unplugging. As if that’s a solution! Far better to think intelligently about your own strategies for consuming and sharing infomation. If you want to start somewhere, try listening to Kip Voytek’s amazing insights on Radio Johnny.

My advice? Police your sources. Ruthlessly unfollow, unsubscribe and unread anything you find boring. Constantly tune your setup. Remember to start from scratch in a new area every now and then.

And your desire for completeness? It’s harmful. Let it go. 

There are hidden shortcuts. Each day I link to two things that I think are amazing on Twitter, so follow @myddelton and let me know what you think.

Nov 23

Radiolab and Other Podcasts

Radiolab is a beautiful collage of stories, music and effectsPodcasts have the power to transform mundane tasks into enjoyable activities. Why? Because unlike books, tv, videos or websites, you can do other things at the same time as listening to them. 

Exercising, cooking, cleaning, shopping, commuting or just lying awake with jet lag are all a million times better with a good podcast between your ears. But like most things online, sorting the great from the merely good is hard. 

Want a head start? Try listening to these, my all time favourite podcasts. 

Radiolab

Few things in this world are as good as Radiolab. Seriously. It believes ‘your ears are a portal to another world’. And it’s right.

You get sucked in by the sound. After the acoustic purity of BBC Radio 4 or the earsplitting compression of commercial radio, the sonics in Radiolab are mind-bending. Original music drifts in and out. Voices are stitched together. Scratches, gurgles and vortexes appear – and silence becomes a weapon.

But the secret of Radiolab is the storytelling. It takes the deepest, weirdest, scariest subjects – death, artificial intelligence, morality, animal rights, tumours – and tells beautiful, emotional, unforgettable tales about them.

Radiolab is the DJ Shadow, the Aphex Twin, the Miles Davis, of radio.

In Our Time

In Our Time has three British academics discussing a single topic over 50 minutes. Sounds dull, but it works thanks to the wide range of topics like:

  • Philosophy - David Hume, Malthusiasnism, Free Will
  • Science - the Moon, the Neutrino, the Age of the Universe
  • Religion - Shintoism, John Wyclif and the Lollards, Islamic Law
  • History - the Siege of Tenochtitlan, Custer’s Last Stand, the Iron Age
  • Artistic works - Delacroix’s Liberty, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Bhagavad Gita

Melvin Bragg’s a great host too. He never gets out of his depth when cajoling, prompting, hurrying and even correcting the academics into covering the topic. And although he can be brusque, he usually extracts a compelling story.

Which, knowing academics, is a special skill.

Seminars About Long Term Thinking

The Deviant Globalisation seminar is incredibleThere are multiple Stewart Brands. They show up in documentaries about Ayn Rand, ecological science, NASA, cybernetics and the Whole Earth Catalog. One even came up with ‘information wants to be free’. But my favourite Stewart Brand is the one who introduces the Seminars About Long Term Thinking

You might learn that some organisms are thousands of years old, that you can pick up any language in three months, that governments should use historians to predict the future, or that the South is falling prey to deviant globalisation.

Yes, the ideas are often a little crazy and yes, Kevin Kelly asks ridiculously long questions at the end. But conventional wisdom is rarely this thought-provoking.

The Straight Dope

Finally, when you’re not up for dealing with the big questions, you might prefer five minute answers to the little questions. Enter The Straight Dope:

  • What would it be like walking around on a cube-shaped planet?
  • Did firemen once use nets to rescue people from burning buildings?
  • Are bananas about to become extinct?
  • Whatever happened to that plan to grow square trees?
  • Could I take down a T Rex with my Beretta 9mm pistol?

Funny stuff. Perfect for walking to the bus stop and learning something new.

Let me know which podcasts you love on @myddelton. Thanks to @sjors and @gabrielheatwave for the original recommendations.

Updates

Podcast recommendations from other readers include:

Keep them coming!

Aug 31

The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier

The Brand Gap exists between strategy and creativityFor years I’ve been hostile to branding. It felt like smoke-and-mirrors, a relic from the golden age of advertising with no place in our brave new online world.

The Brand Gap changed my mind overnight. It bridges the gap between strategy (logic) and creativity (magic) and is structured around five activities – differentiate, collaborate, innovate, validate, cultivate.

But the twist comes with Marty Neumeier’s (re)definition of branding:

"A brand is a person’s gut feeling about
a product, service or company”
Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap 

This focus on feeling makes it a call-to-arms for user experience designers.

Convince People to Focus

User experience people are fond of saying that if you design for everybody, you design for no one. This question of focus is one of our key battlegrounds and, let’s face it, one where we often lose.

The Brand Gap tackles focus head on. Marty admits that focusing means giving up on potential customers. But if this lets you dominate a small category instead of trailing the leaders in a big one it’s worth it:

History has shown that it pays handsomely to be number one in your category  first, because of higher margins, and second, because the risk of commoditization is almost nonexistent.
Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap 

Being third in a product category exposes you to low margins and commoditisation

More money with less risk of fighting to the bottom on price? Sounds like a convincing business strategy to me.

Make New Friends

The parallels with UX design go beyond focus and differentiation though:

  • for brand research, qualitative techniques like 1:1 interviews, ethnographic research and field tests are preferred to focus groups and quantitative studies.
  • branding uses prototypes – in the form of creative briefs and mockups – to quickly test and refine the gut feelings necessary for success.
  • a clear visual hierarchy – or ‘natural reading order’ as it’s called here – is important in everything from packaging design to websites.
  • brand people need to be natural facilitators, as creating a charismatic brand needs thousands of people to work together over a long period.

These shared techniques should make branding and user experience people natural allies – a refreshing change from the idea that marketing is the enemy.

Discover A New History

User experience designers know plenty about the history of design but rarely talk about the story of branding and advertising. Which is a shame, because advertisers were talking about designing experiences back in the 1950s.

The Brand Gap positions itself within this wider tradition. Marty Neumeier even provides a list of “rewarding and true” books at the back, saying:

The history of branding takes a lot of reading

The ideas in The Brand Gap are like a group of islands whose foundations extend below the surface of the page:
What you see are only the peaks.
Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap 

If Positioning and Selling the Invisible are typical, learning about the history of branding will be extremely rewarding for user experience people.

Why You Should Read It

The Brand Gap is a perfect introduction to branding. Marty Neumeier combines ideas you already love into a story you won’t forget. Read it.

Let me know what you think about this review on @myddelton. And if you liked this, take a look at what else I write about.

Aug 23

The Hidden Business of UX Design

Sitemap or Org Chart?User research often throws up problems beyond the scope of designing websites and applications. Awkward things like corporate focus, content freshness, customer service relationships and database quality problems.

All affect the user’s experience, yet addressing the business processes responsible is rarely seen as part of user experience design. Which is a shame because failing to address business issues can undo all our design work.

Redesign the organisation

My first exposure to user research was the CABE redesign in 2008. The big (unsurprising) finding was that people wanted to find content by themes like housing, health or sustainability.

It didn’t take long to design the information architecture, but three years later we still had problems with creating the content. Sections like sustainability, which had a dedicated internal team, had great content. Areas which required cross-team collaboration, like health or housing, were poor.

Login Flow? Or Complaints Process?The lesson? It’s not enough to redesign your website - sometimes you have to redesign your organisation. CABE should have created new teams, or refined their editorial processes, to populate our shiny new information architecture.

Forget the front end (sometimes)

Another site that I worked on had serious usability issues. Frustrated at my failure to convince people of their importance, I did some user research to show the need for change.

But none of the research findings related to my usability concerns.

Instead, the real user issues touched on multiple areas of the business. Addressing them involved difficult conversations, serious data analysis, renegotiation of contracts and even culture change.

The lesson? User research throws up some issues that can’t be addressed with wireframes and prototypes. (Also, don’t do research to prove yourself right!).

Fight for better processes

Design Process? Or Quality Cycle?You might wonder whether these issues matter to user experience designers. They sound suspiciously like things other people should be sorting out.

Maybe. But many managers aren’t digital natives, let alone advocates of user-centred design. They won’t make good strategic or operational decisions without good advice and, weird as it seems, our research is often the first time they find out what users really think. So, for now at least, it falls on us to fight for the better business processes our designs deserve.

And if we don’t? The beautiful websites and applications we design won’t work for users. No matter how good they are on paper.

Let me know what you think on @myddelton.

Aug 19

Concatenate Rules

Normal people don’t usually thank you for teaching them Excel tricks. Unless that trick is the Concatenate function. Then they love you forever.

The original Concatenate function

Concatenate joins together text from multiple cells. Let’s say you have two cells containing “Hidden” (A1) and “Gems” (B1). Here’s how to combine them:

=CONCATENATE(A1,B1)
results in “HiddenGems”

But Concatenate is a long unusual word which makes it hard to remember. So it’s good you can use an ampersand instead, just like you use plus and minus:

=A1&B1
results in “HiddenGems” as well

The shortcut Concatenate functionYou can add your own characters into the formula too. Insert a friendly space (or any character string) by putting it in quotation marks:

=A1&” ”&B1
results in “Hidden Gems”, which is much prettier

It’s difficult to explain how useful Concatenate is. I use it to build greetings from title/firstname/lastname (mailouts), construct working URLs from unique identifiers (content audits), add HTML tags to list content (CMS uploads) and export quotes to Wordle to make pretty word clouds (data visualisation).

If you liked this you should read about PureText. Let me know what you think on @myddelton and follow @wizardofexcel to supercharge your Excel skills.

Aug 17

Why Can’t I Shop By Meal?

Old Sainsbury's storeOnline grocery shopping in the UK is underwhelming. It’s the same old process (write a list and locate the items) with a few tweaks (favourites and search).

It doesn’t take much to imagine big improvements:

  • Find a recipe online and click a link to get the ingredients
  • Jump from wine review to buying a bottle (or case) in one click
  • Buy a chef’s cookbook with QR codes throughout to fill your basket
  • Email all the necessary supplies to that friend who loved your last meal
  • Open a government PDF linked to ingredients for a week of healthy eating
  • And my personal favourite - enter number of party guests, pick your party food and then watch the website spit out a mathematically-precise party hamper.

All you need is a robust system so that anyone – food blogger, publishing house, civil service mandarin, software developer – can populate a shopping basket with items via a simple weblink. The internet will do the rest.

Everyone benefits

The first supermarket to introduce a great API will reap the benefits. (An API lets websites talk to each other – in this case, any website would be able to create and fill up a basket on the supermarket’s website, ready to order).

Normal people benefit because transcribing and hunting down ingredients for recipes becomes a thing of the past. You can find a recipe on your favourite site and order the ingredients direct from the supermarket.

People using the API get income, like book reviewers do from Amazon. Food bloggers might make enough to buy white truffles. Larger sites could reduce their display advertising (yay!). Government could even get kickbacks from supermarkets through encouraging people to eat more healthily!

Supermarkets benefit most. An API drives customers from new sources, not just existing store visitors. Profitable third party apps give you great design without investment risk (think Twitter and Tweetdeck). Hundreds of niche uses open up, so the mass-market supermarket becomes a powerhouse of differentiation.

Groceries are not books…

Of course it’s not as simple as creating an Amazon for food. Grocery products are fast moving consumer goods and they come with their own challenges:

  • The sheer volume of products make it hard to build good affiliate bundles.
  • Products are launched and discontinued at a bewildering rate. The same product, same quantity, same manufacturer, can change from month to month.
  • There are stock issues. A popular recipe exhausts a rare-but-perishable delicacy. Items like Brussels sprouts are seasonal. Stock levels are so volatile that delays between basket generation and ordering cause problems for users.

…but the hard part’s been done already

A Tesco warehouse

Although these are big problems, we’re talking about giants. Tesco is the fourth largest retailer in the world. And whereas Amazon has spent a decade building their stock infrastructure, the Big Four supermarkets already have it in place.

The challenges are about design, not infrastructure. A great microformat for ingredients so the API could make appropriate substitutions (make it open and the world will thank you). A beautiful front-end to help normal people put together baskets for their own links. Interaction design that deals elegantly with stock issues. Service design with real humans doing real quality checks.

The future will have a better connection between the internet and our groceries. The only question is, who’s going to get there first?

OK, I know Tesco has an API, but I’ve can’t find any examples of the uses I want to see. Let me know what I’ve missed on @myddelton. And thanks to Leisa Reichelt’s workshop in January for the inspiration…

Aug 04

Coasthopper Service Design

The Coasthopper busThe Coasthopper bus in North Norfolk is a fantastic service. It proves you don’t have to be a huge corporation to do great service design. 

If you’re tired of hearing the same old service design case studies, here’s an example of a simple public service delighting its users by meeting their needs.

Frequent, Cheap, On Time

In Selling the Invisible, Harry Beckwith advises that the first step in service marketing is to “get better reality”. For a bus service like Coasthopper this means you need to be frequent, cheap and on time.

It turns out Coasthopper already has great reality.

Buses run at least twice an hour throughout the day, which is exceptional for a rural timetable. A 90 minute journey along the Norfolk coast costs less than a 10 minute hop into Bristol’s city centre. And in catching eight buses over three days, every one arrived within three minutes of its scheduled time.

Word Gets Around

You can’t get near North Norfolk without hearing about Coasthopper.

A huge part is the name. “Coasthopper” communicates the whole service in three syllables – it runs along the coast and you can hop on or off at any point. Word of mouth matters in service marketing, so helping users form an accurate mental model of the service in a single word is a killer tactic.

The buses look distinctive too. You only need to see the cheerful yellow and blue colour scheme once to realise what’s on offer.

The Coasthopper timetable

But it’s more than that. We first heard about Coasthopper in the Guardian. Our King’s Lynn hotel had timetables on reception and in our room. The tourist guide had a timetable in the back. Someone at Coasthopper is doing fantastic work with the national press, local businesses and the regional tourist board to get the word out at every possible touchpoint.

Communication Matters

My favourite thing about Coasthopper is the clear, friendly communication.

Timetable design is a tricky business. Coasthopper’s is clearly laid on a large square, with Monday-Saturday on one side and Sunday on the flip. It lists every time, for every bus, at every stop, but the text is large enough for the many pensioners using the service. The (difficult) decision to stick to a single linear route helps, an example of how constraining your service can reap rewards.

The writing is even better. Just compare the empty marketing drivel for First’s Bristol fares with the friendly and informative text for Coasthopper. You can’t fake it – the writer was thinking about who reads it and what they want to know.

Even the drivers are great communicators. One calls out personal introductions to “Sunny Hunny” (Hunstanton) and “Chelsea By The Sea” (Burnham Market) as you pass through. Others make polite, friendly and well-received interventions when people have music too loud or eat on the bus.

Everybody Loves Special Treatment

But what makes Coasthopper exceptional is they clearly know their users and cater to their needs. Some examples in their own words:

  • "If you are walking in a large group and you want to use Coasthopper, then please let us know at least seven days in advance, so we can do our best to make sure you’re not left behind!" (incredible service for walkers)
  • "Wheelchair users have priority over all other passengers in using the dedicated space" (unambiguous inclusion of people with disabilities)
  • "Dogs are welcome on board Coasthopper, and we do not charge for them" (explicit acceptance for people with pets)
  • "Coasthopper Rovers come in 1, 3 and 7 day versions, so you can hop on, hop off as much as you wish" (perfect for holidaymakers without a car like me)
  • Holkham Beach
  • "If you have any further questions, please email us or call us on 01553 776980" (real contact details at the top, not the bottom, of their FAQ page)

Coasthopper wins awards and carries over half a million passengers every year. Their service does more than take people from A to B – it gives you a reason to return to North Norfolk. Did you think a bus service could do that?

Let me know what you think about this on @myddelton. You can find out more about Coasthopper on their excellent website or, preferably, by going to the North Norfolk coast yourself. It’s beautiful…

Jul 12

The Hidden Powers of SurveyMonkey

The four simple question types you usually needTwice I’ve joined companies to find professional researchers laughing at my use of SurveyMonkey for user research. They assumed it was inadequate compared to their costly enterprise software.

But most surveys don’t need advanced features. When they saw how easy it was to do surveys with SurveyMonkey, the researchers never looked back.

In their honour, here’s my guide to the lesser-known features of SurveyMonkey.

Super Simple Data Sharing

The whole point of a survey is getting responses. But enterprise tools put so many barriers between writing the survey and getting the responses that it’s easy to forget why you were asking the questions in the first place.

This just isn’t good enough.

So my top reason to use SurveyMonkey is it only takes 30 seconds to create a password-protected URL for your survey results. Now anyone can access the data without being able to modify the responses or mess up the survey itself. 

And what does quick and timely access to user data equal? UX converts.

One Survey, Multiple Collectors

SurveyMonkey lets you create a single survey with many different URLs (‘collectors’). You might put one on your website, another in a mass email to registered users and a third on your Twitter account. 

All collectors gather responses to one place, but the trick is you can view data in aggregate or segment it by collector. This lets you easily see differences between your audiences at the same time as gathering overall data.

And that’s just the start. Segmentation lets you test your hunches (do people respond differently when incentivised?) and compare feedback over time (one set of feedback questions with a different collector for each time you speak).

Conditional Logic That My Mum Understands

Setting up a branching survey is easy and needs no programming knowledgeYou don’t have to create many user surveys before you find that you want to ask different follow-up questions depending on previous answers. 

The classic example is the satisfaction survey – ask one thing to users that failed to complete their task (‘what prevented you doing this?’) and something else to users that were successful (‘what do you most value about our site?’).

Although this sounds simple, in practice it’s dangerously close to programming. And, ouch, debugging. But SurveyMonkey has an interface for branching surveys so straightforward that my mum can (and does) use it.

The Creepy Part

Finally, you can pass information into the survey via a personalised URL. 

Using something like Campaign Monitor you send personalised emails to all of your registered users, each with a survey link that contains their email address as part of the survey URL. When users complete the survey their response is logged alongside their email address. Without them doing anything.

Now you can contact users about issues raised without ever asking for an email address. Fewer fields to complete, and no input errors either. Win-win.

Just don’t claim this is an ‘anonymous’ survey…

It Doesn’t Do Everything (But In A Good Way)

Of course, many great features are missing from SurveyMonkey. (Although the refusal to bloat it with features just makes me love it more).

You can’t drag and drop when designing your survey. Or allow respondents to upload their own files. Or completely retheme your survey with CSS. If you want to do those things then check out Wufoo.

You can’t get an RSS feed of responses. Or do computation and scripting. Or use strings from previous answers in subsequent questions. If this sounds fun, you should look at SurveyGizmo

But SurveyMonkey has been ever-present in my arsenal for the last five years, and no other tool can make that claim. It’s solid, easy, powerful, friendly, usable and cheap. If you do user surveys, you should definitely try it.

I’m not affiliated with SurveyMonkey – I just love using it. Let me know what you think on @myddelton – particularly if you know something useful I’ve missed.

Update: SurveyMonkey introduced the ability to use strings from previous answers in subsequent questions in February 2011.