Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Customer input, Who needs it!

When designing a product do you need active and continuous input from your customer?

It seems logical that in order to control Customer Debt one would want to involve the customer.

Who is your customer? What are the concerns of your customer?

Identifying customers or potential customers may be the easiest part. The concerns of the customer is the key! Suppose you identify ten customers and invite them to participate in the design of your product. The most important thing is to figure out the concerns of these ten people!

For instance, if you are re-writing an existing product your existing customers may be concerned with keeping the new product exactly like the old product to minimize their learning curve and to allow them to maximize their use of the new product. Does this motivation, keeping the new product exactly like the old product, match the broader concerns for the future?

Suppose your goal is to take the new product "into the future" and really change how things are done! If you have a group of customers that are worried about minimizing change they will not give you advice to take you into the future. If you ignore them then you will probably lose them when you release your new product. It is almost like "you can't win for trying".

In software I have often found that customers do not know what could be developed. They base their vision of the future on the common User Interface Gadgets that they are accustomed to using. I started programming in 1984. I bought my first computer shortly there after and it was a Macintosh SE. (I still have it!) I experienced first hand the criticism and complaints from the DOS users. If it had been left to the existing "customer" base what would have been the results?

Now a days people envision software based on the buttons, scroll bars, lists, and other gadgets with which they are familiar. They do not know that developers can make new custom controls or new input devices (or whatever). Many people can not envision a future unless it is just a baby step away from the present. Is your customer like that?

Internet lore concerning the development of the legendary iPod suggests that only members Tony Fadell's team and a few select individuals which included Steve Jobs and some employees of PortalPlayer were ever allowed to see the new iPod.

I wish I had the connections to talk to the iPod team and get the whole story!

I also would love to talk to Toshiba about the development of the Gigabeat S and then to Microsoft about how they took that and made the Zune.

While developing software often I have suggested enhancement or features. Often these suggestions have been discredited with the statement "you are a programmer". Since when are programmers NOT software users! I am not saying my suggestion should have been adopted. I am saying that their argument was invalid and that the suggestion should have been dismissed on other grounds.

In order to properly consider customer input one must have a sound understanding of what the product is to do and for whom it is to do it. If you want to do some old thing in a new way in order to capture new users then you have to balance the needs of existing customers with new customers.

If you are re-writing software that is in a market where it is to assist with some mundane and repetitive task I have noticed that the users only want incremental changes made to the product. Revolutionary change upsets their routine!

If your software is in a market that is based on entertainment then I have noticed that revolutionary change is sought after and found to be enticing and exiting.

Back to our ten customers helping us design our software. Suppose you use all of the advice of these ten customers and release a product. They are happy and suppose that the existing customer base is happy as well and everyone seems to be upgrading to the new product. Now suppose that your biggest competitor releases a new version of their competing product. It has some "really cool" feature and the blogs light up with praises for their product and criticism of your product for not having the feature. Now you have accrued some major Customer Debt and Product Market Debt. Customer input is not a sure thing. It does not guarantee a win. At the same time customer input doesn't doom you to failure!

As customers give input ultimately someone has to decide whether or not to follow the customer's suggestions. Here is a bit of reality for you. I worked for one of the largest software companies in the world for a while. I had recently came from a Department of Energy job. At the DOE I had been taking the MAN pages for a particular flavor of Unix and converting them into HTML so that we could browse them with the Mosaic browser. Browsing and HTML was something with which I was familiar. At my new job (at this large software company) a new product was being developed. Another developer came to me and said we should make this browser based. The term "browser based" had not even been coined yet! I wonder if he was the first to use it. I said that it seems like it would be a great fit to me. The product was customizable with a proprietary script-like programming language. I suggested we use a Hypertalk type language instead. My friend scheduled a meeting with the team and all of the management and presented his idea for a browser based product and showed them Mosaic, some HTML, and various things. The "boss" said authoritatively "NO". A friend came to us and said, "I was talking with your boss and he asked me if I knew anything about FTP and HTML". We were shocked. FTP had been around for ever for us Unix users. How could he set direction when he didn't know anything about existing technology such as FTP! How was he going to set vision and direction for technology when he didn't know anything about NEW technology like HTML and Browsers. My point is a customer may have a great idea and it may fall into the hands of someone that can't recognize it as that. If the idea my friend presented had been adopted Netscape would have never came into being and Java script probably would have never came into being. WordPerfect corporation would have had a web browser, with scripting like Hypertalk, and it would have been sitting on top of a database (DataPerfect) from day one! The reason I feel that Netscape would have never made it is the fact that at that time WordPerfect had one of the most powerful marketing channels and had an extremely loyal customer base!

Why do I speak of things that could have happened? I do it to give you real life examples of the difficulties in choosing the best direction for technology and for your company.

I end with this question:

So, do you need customer input or not?

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