Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Never listen to your customers

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I just ran across an entry on another bloge with a very dangerous message: Never listen to your customers.

The rationale for this very drastic statement: Customers will only be able to tell you what is wrong, not what is possible—and in order to be the best in the long term a more visionary and actively future-shaping approach is needed.

In this, the post is not entirely wrong; however, it is still highly naive. For one thing, listening to the feature wishes of the customers is not the same thing as listening to the needs of the customers. For another, following this advice would perpetuate many of the bad habits of today’s software makers (including those that are responsible for the third-rate software delivered by e.g. Microsoft). A likely incomplete list:

  1. Neglecting bug-fixes and improvements of the existing features, in favour of adding new features.
  2. Featuritis, where feature after feature is added—most of which will eventually not be used by the typical user, and many of which may even be hindrances. (This with a number of side-effects, including greater complexity and more bugs.)
  3. A “pin the donkey” approach to features, where ten features are added and only one eventually sticks.
  4. A thinking that makes marketing more important than quality, to the detriment of the customers.

This is particularly interesting with regard to the sometimes heard claim that open-source software would be lacking in innovation (and, in the rhetorical context, ipso facto be unworthy of attention): Open-source products are typically written by the users for the users, on the basis that if someone has an itch to scratch, he is given the opportunity to scratch it. If someone is hindered by a bug, he can fix it—he does not have to wait until some manager decides that the bug is worthy enough to be fixed. If he lacks a basic feature, he can add it. If he sees a room for innovation, he can innovate. Etc. (It should not be denied that this road is closed to many users because they, unlike the majority of earlier users, lack the programming skills; however, this does not mean that these products are unsuitable for the man on the street—as proved by e.g. Firefox.)

Notably, however, open source is by no means lacking in innovation—it just tends to eclectically add what has been found to work, be needed, and bring benefit to the users. As for true innovations, they have very often been made in a research context, an open-source context, or in a context that today would be considered open source. The “innovators” in the major software makers have very often just copied, modified, or extended an idea that was made by someone else years earlier.

I agree that innovation is necessary to move beyond the borders of the known. Innovation, however, should not be made at the cost of “due diligence” towards existing features. It should not be confused with implementing a dozen ideas and see what sticks. It does not equal success. In fact, the world is full of innovative companies that ultimately failed, because they lacked the marketing, resources, timing, or business prowess to succeed—and, arguably, the greatest benefit of innovation (from a business POV) is just that it allows for better marketing.

Not listening to the users can make for more commercially successful software—it does not make for better software.

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Written by michaeleriksson

April 7, 2010 at 2:19 pm

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