Friday, February 25, 2011

Should I listen to my users?

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.


Anonymous said...

In the public dialogue about listening to users when making product decisions, I find that a critical factor is often overlooked: the kind of information being offered (or solicited).

There's a big difference between "listening to users" by asking "what do you want?" and "listening to users" by asking "does this meet your needs?" The former is a divergent idea-generating conversation, while the latter is a convergent one seeking to validate an idea.

I would argue that customers are a critical source of validation in the chaotic phase. As a source of inspiration, though, I agree, users are often no better than anyone else.

swardley said...

There is a strong difference between feature differentiation of a product (an activity in a transitional phase where feedback from users is essential) to a genuine innovation of an activity.

The problem in the chaotic phase is that need is determined ultimately through experimentation i.e. there was no need for SMS until someone put it out there and a need was discovered.

Unfortunately, the two often get confused because every feature differentiation of a product is called an innovation. In reality we use the term innovation so poorly that every stage of lifecycle gets labeled with it.

The line "does this meet your needs" already tells you the activity is in existence in some form or another, otherwise no "need" would be there. I'd argue the questions you should be asking is :-

* "Does this meet your need?" [Transitional Phase]

* "Does this create a need you didn't realise you had?" [Chaotic Phase]

Obviously, with the latter they won't be able to tell you until they've had a chance to play with it (i.e. experiment).

Hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

Good points. Perhaps both questions could be better asked as "is this useful to you?" preferably with "here, have a play and see" if it's radically different.

I've written up a few more thoughts here:

swardley said...

Hi Matt,

Excellent post at

Your categories of :-
* watching users
* asking users
* use data

are not a million miles from my own position of :-
* collaboration / listen to yourself.
* listen to your ecosystem
* price & quality comparison (e.g. use data).

Though you express them far more succinctly. The point about this whole post was because of several raging debates over whether to listen or not to listen to users.

It's the same as agile vs six sigma, closed source vs open source, push vs pull, hierarchical vs networked ... the right balance is never one or another but use both at the right place.

That fundamentally is the whole point of lifecycle - there's isn't one methodology, you need multiple. The "big message" of lifecycle is "things change and so your techniques need to change as well" - I'm merely using graphs to point out the bleeding obvious :-)