Product innovation is sometimes thought of as a black box: a secret formula that magically produces game-changing products and services.

The reality is a little different. All truly meaningful product iterations stem from the communities that use these products day in and day out. There’s no secret sauce — with the right approach, any business can harness the power of community to iterate better products.

Successful products address a unique customer or market problem. Nobody has better knowledge of these problems than the product users who experience them first-hand. Involving these stakeholders in product strategy offers businesses immeasurable benefits, from growing community engagement to gaining a unique perspective on roadmap decisions.

However, many leaders overlook the opportunity to build and incorporate these feedback loops into their development lifecycles. In doing so, businesses are missing the opportunity to create a platform that not only fuels business growth but also empowers users to evolve their skills.

To create valuable products and services, community engagement is vital. Businesses must have strategies in place that enable them to source and incorporate community feedback into product decisions. For many, this can be a daunting process — but as we’ll see, that doesn’t have to be the case.

Start Small: Don’t Boil the Ocean

The ability to effectively involve your community throughout the product iteration and development process is a superpower, and it’s one that any business can harness.

At Slack, we use a variety of channels to collate and synthesize feedback from our community into our product roadmap — from closed betas to developer advisory boards. But if you’re just starting down this path, you don’t need a sophisticated system: a basic approach works well too.

Choose one channel for your customers to provide you with feedback. Something as simple as an email address works. Task someone from your team with categorizing feedback into different buckets. Tackle small, easy-to-fix issues in customer love sprints and work to identify the bigger challenges that should be folded into your product roadmap.

Before adding additional feedback mechanisms, focus on perfecting the feedback loop. Collecting feedback is only part of the challenge: equally important is showing your users how you’re adopting their feedback. Closing this loop demonstrates to customers that the thoughtful feedback they provided is paying dividends and resulting in meaningful changes to the product. Include updates in release notes or respond directly to community members to let people know you’re acting on their contributions. 

Advisory boards are another powerful tool that are easy to set up. Invite 10 or 15 important customers to sit on these boards and openly engage with them. Show them what you’re building, get their input and invite them to take part in early-stage betas to validate concepts and work through the fine details that add up to a great product.

Related Article: The Innovation Flywheel: Support Collaboration in Customer Communities

Evolving Feedback Loops Over Time

As your community grows, you might find the volume and diversity of feedback becomes overwhelming for your product team. Without a structured approach, it’s extremely difficult to identify trends, prioritize issues and deliver meaningful changes for your community.

Develop a framework that specifies how feedback should be collected and organized. Synthesize feedback under distinct categories that align with your product roadmap and work to identify themes that indicate the issues you should be prioritizing.

Audit the effectiveness of your feedback channels periodically. Evaluate how each channel is scaling and explore areas you could tweak or reinvent entirely to deliver more utility and value for your community.

Learning Opportunities

You could adopt tangible metrics, but truthfully, it’s really hard to directly connect qualitative feedback to business outcomes. Instead, focus on elevating a broad range of voices to ensure all users are heard.

There are endless ways to do this. Blend informal feedback methods with more formal channels. At Slack, we host a monthly AMA with senior leaders from our product team. To our community, the opportunity to directly connect with a senior leader is extremely powerful.

We also have Slack workflows for our community to directly submit feedback, product ambassador programs and more. Building those direct relationships between product leadership, software engineers and community members allows the magic to happen.

Balancing Feedback with Other Inputs

Collecting, analyzing and adopting community feedback is vital, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle that businesses need to solve to build a winning product roadmap. It’s impossible to solve everyone’s problems, particularly at scale. Instead, prioritize issues that will move the needle for the highest number of people. But don’t forget about easy fixes. Addressing minor issues typically only requires a small time investment but results in a product that delights users.

Make sure the feedback you act on comes from a group that’s representative of your entire customer base. An enterprise user will have an entirely different set of needs from an individual consumer, and it’s your role to contextualize their feedback and communicate this to the product team.

Be transparent with your community. Complex challenges might take several quarters for your team to address fully. That’s fine, but it’s important to set expectations to let your community know that their feedback is being listened to.

Related Article: Tips to Build a Highly Engaged User Community

True Innovation Takes a Community

It’s virtually impossible to innovate in complete isolation. Community engagement should play a central role in informing product strategy. Beyond that, enabling your customers to connect with one another elevates the role of your product in your customers’ everyday lives.

Communities help people discover new ways to use your products, grow the adoption of your tools and ultimately, enable your users to be more successful. Those behaviors have an undeniable positive impact on your business and the wider ecosystem, fueling future innovation and growth.

Learn how you can join our contributor community.