May 09, 2006

Don't Listen to your Customers

In a very positive article on Google, Garret Rogers opines that one of Google's keys to success is this:

Give people what they want, not what you think they want.

Garret is right of course - product designers need to remove their own fragile egos from product design. But that is only half of the story....

The Hard Part of Product Design

The easy half of product design is to listen to the customer. The hard part is actually understanding the customer:

Give people what they want, not what they think they want.

The gap between needs and beliefs is the trap that separates "good" from "great". It is not an easy trap to avoid, and I don't pretend to know how to bridge the gap. But you know the gap is there - you can can see it around you in the design of everyday products.

Harvard on Product Design

Responding to customers' every expressed whim is the process that gives us mediocre multifunction camera PDA music phones, in-car GPS mapping air conditioning emergency CD changing AM/FM audio systems, and programmable voice-enabled groupware multimedia 3d spreadsheet word processing email software.

The May 8 issue of Harvard Business Review asks, "Why the rush toward feature bloat?" Researchers Rust, Thompson, and Hamliton disassemble the problem in glorious HBS detail:

Because consumers perceive value in this Swiss-Army-Knife approach and will pay for the added utility. The problem comes when the buyer actually starts to use the product. The increased complexity makes for a very unhappy consumer...

I recently bought a slick mobile phone that came with a long list of apps and a phonecam with more megapixels than my first digital camera. Terrific sound, terrific pictures, lots of features, long battery life, and small. Yet I dumped it after one day. Why? Because my true needs are not captured in that feature list. All the overdesigned software meant there was a long lag before any keypress feedback, and so keying anything was an exercise in frustration. Dialing numbers drove me batty.

Designers have to understand what customers actually want. Sometimes giving them what they ask for will make them miserable.

Jobs on Product Design

The fact that good product design isn't just a matter of taking a poll is something that designers should understand, but it is never easy to explain or justify. In a 1989 interview that is sometimes cited as evidence of his arrogance, Steve Jobs tried hard to explain the process:

It sounds logical to ask customers what they want and then give it to them. But they rarely wind up getting what they really want that way...

Seeing beyond the customer's requests is something that is easier said than done. In 1989 Jobs' NeXT systems had fallen wide of their target, arguably falling into the trap of having too many quirky capabilities, too many irrelevant features, at too much cost, for real customer needs in that era.

Iwata on Product Design

Yet of course the world is discovering in 2006 that perhaps Jobs was somehow on the right track. One of NeXT's few customers in 1989 included Tim Berners-Lee, who famously used the NeXT's capabilities to invent the Web. And OS X, which is NeXT repackaged, serves the Internet generation brilliantly.

And today, Jobs' design philosophy is gaining currency. In next week's Time magazine article about the Wii, Lev Grossman observes admiringly that Nintendo's success at reaching new customers is achieved in a similar way. He quotes Nintendo's Satoru Iwata:

If you are simply listening to requests from the customer, you can satisfy their needs, but you can never surprise them.

The first important principle Nintendo has grasped, summarizes Grossman: "Don't listen to your customers."

Posted by David at May 9, 2006 04:06 AM

I don't recall exactly, but Henry Ford once said something along these lines: "If I only listended to my customers, I would give them a fast horse"! In reality, it's a delicate balance.

Posted by: Reza at May 10, 2006 12:36 AM

great! but how!How to surpise my customer?

Posted by: jim feng at May 10, 2006 10:07 AM

Very insightful points. good development is to know, great development is to discover whhere is the need is.

Posted by: seesunshine at May 10, 2006 04:28 PM

How to surprise a customer?
Good question!
But u can't, if u just attract the "wrong" ones around you.
If u just be yrself purely, and let Law of Attraction bring to you who are like you, these customers will surely be surprised by you!
The difference between Excellent and Good is just that, the former only serve to satisfy those who are like them, whereas the latter try to satisfy everybody.


Posted by: 紫雨~网上创业教战手册 at May 21, 2006 05:54 AM

I saw your site and wanted to mention a couple good sites for intellectual property research:

These sites provide free patent searching, along with free PDF downloading (bulk downloads possible on SumoBrain), annotating and sharing documents with other users, free alerts for new documents, and more.

If you have a spot, a link to let your users know about the site would be excellent.

Posted by: James at July 11, 2009 12:40 PM
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