When to Listen to Customers

A colleague recently shared this article saying that Steve Jobs never listened to his customers. That, IMO, is a bit off. I am fairly sure it is not accurate to say that of Steve Jobs, but more importantly, I don’t think it is something that should inform how we do design ourselves.

When you rely on consumer input, it is inevitable that they will tell you to do what other popular companies are doing.

Exactly. Biz stakeholders do this, too. But nobody wants you to replicate exactly what someone else has done–what would be the point of that? The takeaway is just inspiration–there is something about these examples they are giving you that is inspiring to them. Maybe you can drill in on what they like about the existing solutions, or maybe you just take them as indicative and try to find the good in them yourself (or both!).

…your insights are backed up with an enormously expensive creative process populated by world-class designers

A key point–valuable innovation does not come cheaply. It’s not a first-idea-out-of-your-head-is-right kind of thing. It’s not a process that prioritizes efficiency and cost management above discovering the best solution. This doesn’t mean good design is unattainable without a big budget and “world-class designers,” but it needs to be recognized that it doesn’t come free. It can’t really be tacked on as an afterthought, and the team and stakeholders at least needs to be invested in the goal of great design balanced with other concerns (usually cost and time).

It’s really hard to design products by focus groups.

Of course. This is a truism in UX design; maybe it wasn’t a truism when Steve said it–I don’t know.

Should you listen to customers is not a simple yes/no question. The question is when should you listen to customers, how should you listen to/ask them, and how should you incorporate what they tell you into your design process.

Asking customers what they want can be valuable, especially when it comes to refinement. Once you release something, potentially something innovative, customers will (hopefully) begin to use it and tell you (if you are listening) things they like, don’t like, pain points, and aspirations.  All of that is extremely valuable, and you are stupid and arrogant if you ignore it.

But you don’t just make what people ask for. What they ask for is just an indicator of what they need, and sometimes it is a misleading indicator. For example, on Indigo Studio, we sometimes get asked “are you gonna do X?” where X is something they are used to doing with another tool. Sometimes X doesn’t fit at all with the design principles and goals of Indigo; in those cases, we’d have to have most of our customers demanding it before we’d do it, and even then, we would adapt it as best we can to the Indigo design language. More often, you can actually do X, but not quite in the way they are used to doing it, that is, you can meet the need but in a different way than they are used to.

The important thing is that you don’t take what customers say at face value. You try to understand what the real need is and design for that in the context of what makes the best design given all of your constraints and goals.

Focus groups are one of the least valuable ways to get feedback due to the group bias factor. Surveys can help, but they have to be crafted and analyzed well. One-on-one interviews are better, but you have to be careful not to lead people too much (and they are one of the more expensive methods). In-context observation usually yields design insights you wouldn’t get from a dialogue, and that’s also where a lot of potential innovation can come from. All of these are different ways you can listen to customers, and they can be applied effectively when they are appropriate.

At the end of the day, though, you have these inputs, but they are just that–inputs, and you have to lean on designers to come up with creative solutions. You have to foster that creativity and provide room for it in your process and environments.

Having customers involved early usually won’t–on its own–lead you to groundbreaking, innovative solutions, but their input into the design process provides good signposts to help add healthy constraints to your solutions, point you roughly in the right directions, and to refine existing solutions in use. So while we might agree with Steve that you shouldn’t “design by focus group,” that hardly means “never listen to your customers.”


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