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New media users continued… Getting user input: Channel 4

Building your company's website without getting user feedback is like buying a bathing suit without getting a second opinion: the results could be ugly. As the head of Channel4.com - and former business manager of the Online Services Group at Microsoft UK - Richard Davidson-Houston stresses the importance of getting to know your website's users: 'Focusing on customers online isn't to do with competitive advantage, as it might be in some classic business. It's actually a prerequisite for survival - it's mandatory.'
October 1, 2007

Building your company’s website without getting user feedback is like buying a bathing suit without getting a second opinion: the results could be ugly. As the head of Channel4.com – and former business manager of the Online Services Group at Microsoft UK – Richard Davidson-Houston stresses the importance of getting to know your website’s users: ‘Focusing on customers online isn’t to do with competitive advantage, as it might be in some classic business. It’s actually a prerequisite for survival – it’s mandatory.’

After working in new media for 12 years, Davidson-Houston states simply, ‘If you don’t focus on this you’re not going to get anywhere.’ The principal reason is that it costs nothing for users to switch to a competitor website. While changing from one print newspaper to another can be a waste of time and money, hopping from one website to another is free and virtually effortless. That’s why Davidson-Houston’s goal with C4′s website is to ‘create frictionless experiences’ for users, where there’s no abrasion between what they seek to experience and what they actually do. He’s not working on this goal alone – C4 is constantly getting user feedback along the way.

Take the uk broadcaster’s increased focus and investment in bringing video content onto its website, which Davidson-Houston says is currently ‘principally words and pictures.’ In order to present the best possible experience for users, he’s using input from the users themselves. While he admits the area of the site where viewers can watch short-form clips is very much a work-in-progress, it was put up to get feedback by observing how people use it so that it can be improved in the future. ‘It won’t get huge numbers of people using it yet,’ says Davidson-Houston, ‘but we know which clips people are seeing because of the log files, and we can see which genres are popular and what happens when we decide which clips and genres to promote.’

The log file data doesn’t get tucked away in a drawer somewhere – this real-time, in-the-field feedback about how people are consuming the live website will be used to continually refine a prototype of the clips that C4 will launch later this year. As the design and policies around the upcoming service are informed by feedback from the live service, the prototype will be further refined with depth studies. These studies, says Davidson-Houston, are conducted by having regular users try the prototype in a lab so that usage of the new service can be observed and more adjustments can be made.

This combination of live feedback data from the field and feedback from the prototypes will lead to the release of the new product. It won’t necessarily be perfect, but user feedback will always be incorporated to try to make it so.

Davidson-Houston’s feedback categories:
1) Log files: They may seem boring, but they show what users have done and not done on your site, and provide real-time, statistically rich feedback.
2) Explicit feedback in response to what’s already on the screen: This feedback can come in many forms, such as commissioned research or, because the Web offers a back channel, users can email their feedback, or use the ‘contact us’ feature on your site. This allows for both small observations (like a spelling mistake) and more in-depth feedback on the site.
3) Upstream of product release: The most interesting thing is for broadcasters to think in terms of prototypes and getting feedback to determine what the user requirements are, and try to reduce risk ‘because investment in this area is large,’ says Davidson-Houston. Broadcasters should exploit the culture of prototyping and beta releases, and think in terms of what they should be doing rather than what they are doing.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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