Listening to users
In the software community, people hold strong opinions on the subject of listening to users. Some feel that users are an essential source of information for making successful products, as evidenced in the customer development methodology, and seek to involve users deeply in product development. Others believe that users don’t know what they want, invoking the quote attributed to Henry Ford, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse’”. Some say that user needs are unknowable except through the lens of a marketplace, where people choose in aggregate which products suit them best, and customers “vote with their wallets” (anything else is “anecdata”).
Regular readers will not be surprised that I believe they are all right, but only in certain contexts. The right strategy for involving users in product decisions will depend on factors related to the product itself, the market, and the product development method being used.
One of the most important is the life cycle stage of the product: is it a new and rapidly evolving concept, or a mature commodity, or somewhere in between? Simon Wardley explains this well over on his blog, so I won’t rehash his points here, but will add a few of my own.
If what we’re looking for is inspiration for a new product, it’s here that Henry Ford was right: users generally won’t hand you a complete product vision on a silver platter. They’ll frame their input in terms of what they know, and the choices already available to them. However, this doesn’t mean that users don’t have a role to play in this instance: watching users can be a great source of inspiration. It’s the combination of domain knowledge and passionate imagination which triggers the creative spark. Henry Ford applied his engineer’s interests to a problem which was evident all around him.
If our goal is to test whether a new product is a good fit for its users, there is no substitute for user feedback. We can guess at whether there is a fit, and our intuition may be good, but users are the ultimate judges, and we don’t know if we’re right or wrong until users evaluate it. So ask them! By engaging in dialogue with individual users, we can learn unexpected things which will help to refine the idea. If we don’t find what they think until our new product is released, we risk making something that no one wants. Why wait until it’s too late? It can be challenging to extract useful feedback for a product which doesn’t yet exist, but this effort is well worth it to avoid wasting much more effort in software engineering.
When our objective is to incrementally improve an existing product, individual anecdotes can mislead us. A given change may be an improvement for one user, but a disaster for another. What we want to know is whether the new version is better for the population as a whole, and in this case, we do well to rely on data. There are pitfalls here as well, of course. We need to choose our questions carefully, and realize that users will often resist any change: not because they’re stodgy by nature, but because they have to invest effort in adapting to the change. I think of incremental improvement as a joint investment made between product developers and their users, to improve the whole system of people and technology for the better.
By choosing the right tool for the job, we can make better decisions, improve faster, and ultimately solve the right problem for our users.