Don’t Underestimate The Value Of Listening Ross | March 30th, 2009

It never ceases to surprise me when people  think that listening to users is bad business.

Michael Arrington recently questioned Facebook’s decision to revert back to some “old features” based on input from Facebook users. In his article titled “No! Never Surrender To Your Users, Facebook”, Arrington argues that you should never listen to your users. Arrington concludes that:

The bottom line is, when you listen to your users, you get vanilla. feature creep. boring. It takes a dictator to create the iPhone and change the course of an entire industry. Imagine if Steve Jobs let other people add features to that device.

Robert Scoble, in his post “Why Facebook has never listened and why it definitely won’t start now” argues essentially the same thing. Scoble writes:

My former boss, Jim Fawcette, used to say that if you asked a group of Porsche owners what they wanted they’d tell you things like “smoother ride, more trunk space, more leg room, etc.” He’d then say “well, they just designed a Volvo.

Arrington and Scoble are wrong. Just ask the newspaper publishing industry or the RIAA about the dangers of ignoring what your users are saying. There is huge value in listening to your users- once you understand how to properly filter what they are saying.

Scoble writes in his post that Mark Zuckerberg “is telling people that he won’t listen to customers. Or something like that.” Assuming that’s true, I strongly suspect that Scoble (and Arrington) confuse listening with conforming. After all, how could you possibly assess whether or not you disagree with a user unless you listen? And if you don’t listen, how can you know what you are disagreeing with?

Listening doesn’t mean conforming. It doesn’t mean that you implement every feature requested by users, or even many of the features requested by users. And Scoble – it doesn’t mean that you’ll build a Volvo when you intended to build a Porsche.

Steve Jobs is brilliant not because he blindly ignores users – he is brilliant because he listens to users very hard and filters what they are saying. What happens when you don’t listen to your users? You become irrelevant.

When we started working on crowdSPRING in 2006, we conducted several detailed surveys, talking to hundreds of potential users. We asked users what they didn’t like about the then existing marketplaces and what they would build if THEY had an opportunity to build their own marketplace for creative services such as logo design, web design and illustration.

We’ve continued to run our business by listening to users. For example, we are currently refactoring 100% of our code and collaborating with our entire community to improve everything we do, as you can see in our forums.

Smart companies know the difference between listening and conforming. Smart companies listen very hard to their users – they learn to properly filter what their users are saying.

How do you filter what your users/customers are saying about your company or your products? How do you reduce the noise to focus on meaningful suggestions?

Photo credit: * Photography by Chris*

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