Although we dont discuss a formal gamma test category, consider all users who view your Web pages as testers and potential assistants in ongoing page development. Of course, you understand the Web is alive, dont you? And your Web pages are part of this living environment. Therefore, you must nurture your site to keep it up-to-date; otherwise it loses its users and fades into oblivion. To prevent this, you must employ sound methods to request and encourage user feedback, right in your Web pages. Your e-mail address suffices as a bare minimum, but a nice form can do the job much better.
By now youre saying to yourself, Whats all this about two-week revision cycles, fancy forms, and testers all over the place? My pages arent going to be as buggy as a stray dog. Youre probably correct in that sentiment, but you should also understand that without careful planning and cyclic testing, you may be the one who goes buggy.
|To keep that buggy feeling at bay, take this advice: Maintain two separate copies of your site on your own computer (the working copy) and on your Web server (if space is available). Perform all changes on the working copy while the published (server-based) copy is in use. While you test, you can compare the performance and functionality of the working copy to the published copy and observe any changes.|
When you complete a revision cycle, copy the working files over the published files -- after making a backup, of course. If you use relative URLs, you wont need to change anything in the working files before copying them over the old files. Theyll be ready for users instantly. For more on relative links, check out Chapter 11 in the book.
Ahhhh, users. Funny how they keep popping up here, there, and everywhere. Funny how you feed them your Web pages and ask for their feedback. User feedback is the lifeblood of a site, but if youre not careful, its as useful as the feedback from an amplifier with a microphone in front of the speaker. That is, it makes you sit up and take notice, but it wont give you enough useful information to solve any problems. If you like playing Sherlock Holmes, by all means, just put a little message at the bottom of your home page requesting feedback to an e-mail address.
However, your users may not know exactly how to phrase their wants and needs so that you can understand them. Its up to you to give them a hand with feedback forms, nicely worded requests, and warm e-mail thank-yous when they do respond (no matter what they say). Youll definitely get e-mail when things are broken or go awry; youll also learn to appreciate an occasional pat on the back from your users.
If you arent getting feedback, you may need to give your users a better method to respond, such as a feedback form. Theres nothing quite like giving folks a chance to grade you to bring out their likes and dislikes. One of the better ways to decide what kind of feedback form to use is to look around the Web for forms you like. Check out the HTML source to see how the author created them. If that author used a script that works on your Web server, create one like it for yourself. Your servers webmaster can probably help you, if you ask nicely.
|A simple text form on a page of its own for users to copy, fill in, and e-mail back to you is better than nothing. A real CGI form with questions and response boxes is much better. (You can learn more about these in the document Extra 2 on this CD, but youll find a complete and detailed example based on the HTML For Dummies registration form in another one of our books as well: The CGI Bible, IDG Books Worldwide, 1997, ISBN 0-7645-8016-7.) Although you need to be specific in your requests for information, a detailed check box form with no place for general comments can miss valuable information. Give the users space to be creative after you arouse their interest with your own specific questions or check boxes.|
If you really want information, ask about something specific. Tell them youre thinking of adding or changing something, and ask the users to tell you what they think about your idea. Have a contest and give a prize to the person who submits the best or worst feature of your site and explains why they think this is so. Get your users involved in your site and its design, and you all benefit. Here are some specific methods to get more feedback, if your online traffic isnt already telling you everything you want to know.
If youre serious about accomplishing a set of goals with your Web pages, you may want to try the Focus Group approach, which marketing and advertising companies use so successfully. Because you want to focus on your Web site, why not try an online focus group approach? This activity can be similar to beta testing, but with a very select group.
With a focus group, you can e-mail each group member a request to participate and provide the group member with a special URL to view the pages in question. To make this approach work well, you must plan carefully. A focus group can become more of a marketing exercise than Web page testing, but it can also be important to you and your enterprise. You may want to involve your marketing department or an advertising consultant in the planning process and in creating an appropriate questionnaire.
Dont just lurk in the newsgroups -- participate! Make online friends with the folks who are in-the-know in your industrys newsgroup(s). If you know the addresses of the important folks in your field of interest, e-mail them an announcement about your Web sites grand opening; invite them to drop in. Keep them informed about your site, but dont make a pest of yourself. Ask them if theyve been looking for some kind of information on the Net, but cant seem to find it in your area. Then find it, provide it, and let them know about it while you thank them profusely for their suggestions. Another useful tip is to always include your Web site's URL in your e-mail signature. Most modern e-mail packages are HTML aware and readers can click on hyperlinks included in mail messages to view the Web page immediately with their browsers.
When your users lavish you with their feedback, thank them immediately via e-mail. Then use their feedback to better your site. The best thanks you can give users is to put their great ideas to work quickly, and let them know that you appreciate their support.
Be careful though in giving credit directly in your Web pages to folks whose feedback you use. A few people who dont like the change could blame the provider instead of you. Youre the one trying to keep your audience happy, so youre the one who has to take the abuse from disgruntled users. Its usually better to thank users personally via e-mail and as a group on your Web pages, if you feel the need to do so publicly.
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Revised -- January 16, 1998