When to Ignore the Customer
You can’t look at a marketing blog these days without reading that, in terms of innovation at least, the customer is always wrong. Signal vs. Noise commented on a testament by Marco Aiment, creatore of Instapaper, an iPhone app that lets you save Web pages for later reading. Aiment says:
I try to minimize ways for my customers to shoot themselves in the foot…If I let users steer product decisions, the result would be a massive codebase producing a bloated, cluttered product full of features that hardly anyone used at the expense of everyday usability and polish on the features that matter. Like Microsoft Word. Or Firefox.
Signal vs Noise adds:
Does this mean he’s not listening to customers? No, he’s just not letting them steer the product.
The issue isn’t really user input versus authorial integrity: it’s features vs. user experience. Aiment wants to keep an elegant user experience, which he (rightly) considers the most important feature of all.
This doesn’t mean you don’t listen to customers. You listen for ways to improve the user experience, not just crowd in features at the expense of it. That kind of active, organized listening is a lot more difficult than collecting ideas by scanning emails. (It also might be overkill when developing most iPhone apps, which tend to be built to perform one function well. A search engine or word processor is a different animal altogether – you’re talking about a universe of users with vastly different requirements).
Companies that thrive usually keep user experience foremost. This is what Google and Apple do, and what Microsoft usually doesn’t. All three companies do a lot of listening, but the first two are listening on the right level.