Sometimes It Pays To NOT Listen To Your Customers

by Joanna Pineda Posted on April 14, 2010

Photo of Joanna's iPad I got an iPad last week and I’m already in love with it. Yes, I already have an iPod Touch and I’m running a lot of the same apps on both devices, but somehow, the iPad experience is new and different.  Is it a tablet PC?  Not quite.  Is it a Netbook?  Definitely not.  So what is it and why do we need one?  More importantly, why do we want one?

I find it fascinating that Apple has managed to capture the zeitgeist of our age and intuit our desires for computers and devices.  And yet, in a review of the iPad, Time Magazine reveals that, “(o)ne of the things that makes Apple unique is that it never holds focus groups. It doesn’t ask people what they want; it tells them what they’re going to want next.” 

So how does Apple know what customers will want?  And what lessons can mere mortal companies learn from Apple’s product development process?

A few years ago, the MatrixMaxx team at Matrix Group was developing the product road map for the coming year.  A couple of us were arguing for a total redo of the system’s user interface.  We also advocated a lot of new reports that basically repackaged data already available through exports.  The rest of the team argued that clients weren’t asking for these enhancements and it would be risky and a lot of time for little benefit to move forward with such a radical overhaul of our association management software.

After a lot of bargaining re: scope and timeline, the entire MatrixMaxx team agreed to a redesign of the system’s user interface and a new export/report framework.  The effort ended up  behind schedule and it introduced a lot of bugs into the system.  And yet, when the dust finally settled and we got the bugs under control, the end result was fabulous and clients loved it.  The new interface makes it much easier to find information and gave the product a new vibrancy.  The export framework has been universally applauded by clients.

In the end, we learned that sometimes, despite all the customer interviews that we conduct, clients can’t tell us what they want because they can’t even imagine it.  It’s up to us, the product developers, to learn as much as we can about our clients’ needs and wants and literally make stuff up.  Don’t get me wrong, once we make a decision to move in a certain direction, we get client feedback and buy-in, but it isn’t always client requests that drive the major decisions.

Today, some releases are dominated by client-requested enhancements, while others are packed with features that we have determined in-house will be fundamentally good for the product.  Some staff-sponsored features are a hit, while others turn out to be duds.  It’s the risk we take, it’s the risk we must take.

How about you?  What’s your take on Apple’s iPad strategy?  Do you have yours yet?  Or is the iPad a gadget you’ve decided you can live without?

One reply on “Sometimes It Pays To NOT Listen To Your Customers”

I sit on both sides of the fence and yes it is as painful as it sounds.
There are tremendous benefits to being proactive and developing/building something the user hasn’t specifically asked for, but none of this is in a vacuum, otherwise the users would eventually ask “why would I ever need this?”. You do not need to have a focus group to have a vision for the future and a strong sense that the community will adopt it, but it doesn’t always work … remember the Newton, 3D glasses …? Even Apple is not immune to catering to the needs of the users, OS 4.0 is bringing multitasking, unified email and more, all features demanded by the market and users. I didn’t buy my iPhone until the 3GS because the first releases did not address my needs, even if they addresses Apple’s.
I geenrally don’t care for the all or nothing approach Apple attempts to take. I don’t care if Flash is buggy or a memory hog or if Adobe pissed off Steve Jobs. Apple simply deciding not to support Flash on the iPhone/iPad is short sighted and pig-headed. I like that they’re trying to push people towards HTML5, but to not offer an alternative in the meantime or support any alternatives during the transition could be handled better. I was a 10 year Mac user and finally abandoned the platform due to limited flexibility both from a hardware and software perspective.
Alas, most of this comes from the fact that I’m a more demanding user … most people are fine with being told what and what not to like.

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