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:
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
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