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Beware the tyranny of customer feedback

man in grey crew-neck t-shirt smiling to woman on counter
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The customer is always right – right?

This adage – one that many of us grew up with – is a guiding principle of product development. If we can just listen to the customer – if we just give them what we want, our path to product success can’t be too far off.

Isn’t that customer obsession? Wasn’t Amazon where it needed to be? Well, no.

In fact, quite the opposite. Just blindly listening to customers is a surefire path to stay mediocre, or worse. It holds you hostage, forcing you to follow through on these blind promises you’ve made and, if you succeed, you end up with a bloated product. If you fail… well, goodbye trust.

Using open feedback systems, driven by customer desire, is not customer obsession. It’s customer abdication, and it holds you back from being clear-eyed about the decisions you will eventually make when doing customer development. Here is why:

  • The Ferrari Problem – customers want eye candy and aren’t thinking about how you’ll need to maintain it, or if it matters.
  • Customers have no context – they don’t know their market and live in a completely different world than you do.
  • Maintenance – systems which are open-to and guided-by customer feedback tend to need high maintenance to keep them useful. What tradeoffs are you willing to make to add confidence to the system?

Let’s explore these problems in-depth, and talk about how to avoid these problems with tools and concepts that are more likely to bring you better outcomes for your product development.

Vroom Vroom, I Want a Ferrari

If I offered you a Ferrari, would you take it? Sure you would.

Now let’s talk about maintaining the car.

  • Your oil changes are now specialized and cost 10 to 20x what they cost now
  • Any part is now specialized and you’ll need to find a specific mechanic with a smaller margin of error
  • Good luck finding the right gas station

Did any of this come to mind during the offer? My guess is: no, it doesn’t. My bet is even if you got a Ferrari, you wouldn’t use it. This is what I call the Ferrari problem – when we, as human beings, consider only the “thing” we’re acquiring, and not anything around it.

Your customers are human beings.  I repeat, they are human. They will spend time telling you about how much they want a feature… and then they’ll never use it. They just wanted it because they thought it’s cool.

How do you avoid this?

Focus on the problems – customers are well aware of the problems they need solved. They are your best source.  

Contextless Customers

You are probably looking at this on a phone or laptop. If I asked you about the microchip market, you might be able to answer. Let’s ask a few more questions:

  • How about the supply chain?
  • What about the other choices on the market?
  • How about any of the trade-offs necessary to ship this device?

I don’t expect you to be able to answer these questions unless you are a product manager from a company like Lenovo or Apple, and work in their hardware division.

You are a customer.

Now think about your company – my guess is that you are able to answer these questions pretty easily, but your customers can’t. Every time a customer requests something, they don’t ever have this context in mind. In fact, they are just thinking about the problem.

Instead of just expecting them to tell you what they want, ask them about the world around them. Ask them to tell you stories about how they interact with the product.

Open System, Open Problems

I once built a Content Management System (CMS) when I was younger (I am aging myself 😉) and, to my surprise, it worked. The little marvel allowed me to start my first company, The Gamer Studio, and bring on writers to start publishing content.

So I opened it up to feedback and feature requests, provisioned some usernames and passwords and I thought I was on my way… until it happened.

The first incident about corrupted data. Then the next, and suddenly it was a hack here, a hack there. For all the my openness to user feedback and feature requests had been well intentioned – after all, I just wanted to build the best product for my users – the reality was that it had led me down a path of feature bloat, technical debt, and a code-base that I had no hope of maintaining.

I eventually had to shelve it and do the hard work of manually transferring everything to Typepad. Sure, I made a system and opened it up to customer feedback, but I didn’t consider the maintenance costs I was also opening myself up to. I often see the same thing whenever a product team starts using a live “customer voting platform”.

These are open to all types of influences that run counter to your goal – for example, what happens when there is a voting “brigade” being led a single customer with a disproportionate amount of influence? Or a particularly nefarious competitor looking to skew your insights and roadmap?

Not only that, but you also fall into the trap of other parties, both external and internally, deciding your priorities based on bad or irrelevant metrics. For example, stakeholders in other teams or organisations using non-significant (or even, strictly speaking, irrelevant) vote counts to push an agenda. A CEO running a meeting and saying “It’s the top-rated feature request” when it has 17 votes has a particular sting to it.

Instead of voting on features, if you need to have customers vote on anything, let them vote and comment on problems. Put this at the beginning of your discovery process to help shape your research.

The Theme Remains: Focus on Problems.

Customers are a fantastic resource to understand (valuable) problems. However, defining solutions is where we run into more troublesome problems.

Take the solutions out of your customers’ hands, and give that responsibility back to your team.


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