Following on from my previous post on lifecycle, I thought I'd discuss the question of when to listen to users. I'm going to use my lifecycle and profile graphs to illustrate the points I'll be raising, so if this is not familiar to you then please read my most recent post on lifecycle.
Figure 1 - Lifecycle (click on image for higher resolution)
Figure 2 - Profile (click on image for higher resolution)
Before I start, a word of apology. All of this stuff is blindingly obvious and has been for many many years - hence please don't take offense.
Any new activity starts in the chaotic phase and then as it evolves through its lifecycle it enters a more linear phase. As it moves, its characteristics change from uncertain, deviating and a source of worth to known, standard and a cost of doing business.
Less confusion creeps in, let's just reiterate that a new activity is an innovation. Whilst we tend to abuse the term innovation, a feature differentiation is a feature differentiation, a process improvement is a process improvement and an operational efficiency is an operational efficiency e.g. you can call every process improvement, operational efficiency and feature differentiation an innovation if you want but good luck in trying to make sense of things if you do.
As explained in earlier posts, as an activity's characteristics change then the methods by which you can effectively manage it change as well i.e. we shift from agile to six sigma for example. This is why there is no one size fits all.
Equally, in the chaotic stage the approaches taken are about gambling, experimentation, potential future worth and novel practice (i.e. it's highly uncertain), however when that same activity has entered the linear stage it's all about conformity to standards, defined processes, price vs quality of service and best practices (i.e it's predictable). In between these two extremes is where ROI (return on investment) matters because unlike the chaotic stage a market exists to provide some basis for trending and unlike the linear stage, you have a choice over whether to implement it since it is not a cost of doing business.
When it comes to users then :-
- In the chaotic stage the only reason why you would listen to potential users is the same reason why you might collaborate with others - serendipity i.e. the chance encounter of a better idea. Of course, whether the idea is better or not won't actually be known until you "experiment" i.e. you put it out into the market. You have as much chance as identifying the future successful innovation as any user and there are no methods of guaranteeing any innovation will be successful. Like it or not, you have to gamble. The rule of thumb is listen to yourself.
- In the transition phase listening to users is essential because a market has established, users are becoming familiar with the activity, customer feedback and trending is possible and competitors can be analyzed. The rule of thumb is listen to your ecosystem.
- In the linear stage, the activity is a commodity and its all about price vs QoS. Now, assuming you're not going to embark on a disinformation campaign and attempt to persuade users that a commodity is actually some form of innovation (a common tactic) then the only thing you need to really focus on is your position against competitors i.e. faster, more reliable, cheaper etc. Hence the rule of thumb is pricing & quality comparison.
So, should you listen to users? The answer is "yes and no", which one depends upon the stage of lifecycle of the activity in question.
[Added Note 26/02/11] I've just come across this Fred Wilson quote : "Early in a startup, product decisions should be hunch driven. Later on, product decisions should be data driven". It's pretty much spot on.