Always be User-Centric!

by Lucas Suzuki
A couple of companies —Dropbox and Aardvark— that otherwise pride themselves on user-centric design were adamant about not offering the features most frequently requested by their users. What’s going on here? When should vision override user feedback in a lean startup?
All great products and technologies are created following a user-centric approach. But does that mean that companies should always listen to their customers? The answer to that question is no, especially in a startup environment where resources are limited and every bad decision shortens the runway. Startups must always exercise judgment and know whom they should listen to and when. 

The root of the problem lies in how people interpret the term “user-centric.” Those who believe that user-centric means only listening to the customer will develop products and features that customers say they want, but can’t use, don’t need, or are not willing to pay for. Instead, companies should think of the term user-centric as understanding the customer and catering to his needs. In order to truly understand the customer and develop a killer solution, a company needs not only to listen, but also pay attention to customers’ behavior and needs.

This misunderstanding of the concept is more common in situations where startups are trying to develop totally new and disruptive products. These products tend to fill an unmet need that oftentimes even customers are unaware of (think of all the cool new products and services that didn’t exist 10 years ago but that you couldn’t live without anymore.) In this case, customers tend to provide genuine but misleading feedback, and they tend to ask for more of the same. For example, according to Henry Ford on the invention of cars: “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” 

Even for simpler product improvement projects, and assuming that customers knew exactly what they wanted, they might not understand how their preferred features will interact with other features. This is because users don’t see the whole picture, and one change in design might have a ripple effect in the final product’s functionalities. For example, in Dropbox, while many users answered that they would like to have a “My folder” synch feature, they probably would have changed their minds if they knew the consequences of their request: “would you like a my folder synch feature that will make the product much more complex and heavy and can cause your system to crash and lose your files?” Therefore, entrepreneurs must again exercise judgment when balancing user requests and system experts’ opinions. 

Finally, even when users have a deep understanding of systems and can provide technically sound suggestions, entrepreneurs must exercise judgment. Mainstream and heavy users oftentimes have different needs and values. While it is true that heavy users will likely drive early adoption, only mainstream users can create a homerun. Companies must have clearly in their minds their value proposition and their target customer or risk failing to cross the chasm. Only then can they decide whether suggestions and stated needs are coming from the right source.

In summary, companies should always be user-centric. But that does not mean always listening to your customers. It means that you must always exercise judgment, strive to understand your customers, and know who they are and what they need.

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