Yes, “AOL’s new home page”:http://www.aol.com/ has been getting some flack since it went live. However, “Greg Sterling’s suggestion”:http://www.searchenginejournal.com/aols-new-homepage-social-media/4817/ that AOL would have been better off getting users to vote and provide feedback on several home page redesigns is not the way to go.
User feedback is, of course, -important- critical; however, to be useful it must be presented in the right way at the right time.
h2. The Right Way
The right way for users to present feedback is as an expression of needs or problems that the web page must satisfy or solve.
Users should not be asked to come up with solutions (that’s the designer’s job) and they should not be asked to simply vote on or provide feedback on finished designs.
They simply don’t have the information needed or indeed the level of interest to make informed design decisions.
Without understanding a web site’s context (business objectives, user goals, technical constraints), it’s hard even for professional web designers to critique a web site’s design (other than really obvious things).
h2. The Right Time
The best time for gathering user feedback is upfront, where design changes are the quickest and cheapest to implement. Presenting a range of finished designs for users to vote on would be an extremely costly way of gathering feedback.
When you’re at the final design stage you really should only be working on a single design — all others having been ruled out through an iterative process of elimination.
In addition, getting users to vote on a range of choices tends to limit them to providing their feedback within the constraints of the options presented, whereas the optimal solution may be something completely different.
When it comes to involving users in design, the mantra is early and often — ideally it’s an ongoing conversation. For example, Yahoo! has taken a better approach with the redesign of their My Yahoo! page.
Although I can’t comment on the development process overall, rather than presenting users with a finished design and saying “here it is,” they’ve enabled users to try out the new home page (with the option of switching back to the old version) as well as provide feedback via a “suggestion board”:http://suggestions.yahoo.com/?prop=my.
This is a much better way to test a design and gather feedback (if a little painful from reading some of the comments).