When should vision override user feedback in a lean startup?

By Kristie Gan

Some companies —such as Aardvark and last year’s TEM case on Dropbox — 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?

Rarely have I ever talked to a consumer that wanted a “more difficult” purchasing experience or a consumer that wanted to pay more for fewer features/choices.  Do consumers really know what they want? Or are they simply optimizing for what product they deem would give them the “best value.”

I’m not saying that companies shouldn’t test focus groups, go on home visits, or survey products that they need guidance on.  Instead what I’m arguing is that companies need to structure their data in a way that informs their product roadmaps, not determines their product roadmaps.  Productive tests understand the fundamental reason of why a customer is asking for a feature rather than asking what feature the customer actually wants.

In a 1998 interview with Business Week, Steve Jobs famously remarked “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”  And was he right?  I think so.  Could any focus group have ever told you that they wanted a small device that would allow you to make phone calls, check emails, store your calendar, store music, and download just about any app from a virtual store?  Or would they have told you that they wanted a device that didn’t drop their phone calls and would fit nicely in their pocket?  If Drew Houston asked people how they would like to store their information so that they could access it anytime they want, how would have the average consumer responded?  Would they have asked to for a free internet cloud storage system- a huge server on the Web- to securely store their photos, docs, and videos and share them easily from just about anywhere they had internet connectivity?  Or would they have rather asked for a small, portable, shock-proof USB drive that they could carry around with them or the ability to send larger files through email?

These two visionaries didn’t need anyone to tell them how to build their product.  They were playing in product categories that were so complicated that an average consumer wouldn’t and couldn’t comprehend the complexity in the very essence of building these products.  Where consumer testing is appropriate, however, is when companies want to test features or products/services that consumers are already familiar with but need a better understanding of its different applications or simply their personal preferences.  For example, in shopping ecommerce site, do customers really want more choices, or do they just want and easy way to be able to find their perfect shoe faster?  In configuring a computer, do people really need the fastest ram, the largest hard drive, the best graphics cards on the market or do they simply want a nicely designed laptop that allows them to check email, surf the web, and use the Office suite of products?  One can test these evolutionary products, where the market is developed and people have some semblance of familiarity, with users who can express their innate human emotions, rationale, and preferences and are able to inform product design and where their opinions represent a broad market perspective.  However, revolutionary products, playing in undefined categories, are better served in following vision over user feedback.  



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