Product leadership and listening to customers

by Ian Rosenwach on 5.17.2010

A recent article on TechCrunch about Digg and the role of “fanatical users” brings up the issue of customer responsiveness and product strategy.  Arrington thinks that Digg, and specifically Kevin Rose, are captives to their hardcore users and in doing so have sacrificed larger markets.  He compares Digg to Facebook, who he admires for sticking to its guns when rolling out features that are initially unpopular.

I agree that it is possible to be too literal when finding customer needs.  Just because a single customer has a strong need, and knows exactly what they want, doesn’t mean that a feature is a good investment.   All to often companies make this mistake and suffer as a result.

My opinion is that product teams should decipher common problems of groups of similar customers.  These customers know the problem, but don’t know the solution.  They can’t vocalize what to build.    We could call them “ambient needs”.  For example:

  • The newspaper is hard to read on the subway (solution: iPad)
  • There are too many Technology news blogs to stay up to date with (solution: Techmeme, RSS)
  • It’s too hard for me to manage all my different bank accounts to my finances (solution: Mint)

I actually found this article to be more about Leadership than Product.

Every new website feature, product, or business should solve an ambient need!   Product Management should deliver solutions that meet a broad need.

Quotes from the article –

Death by committee:

And when too many people have product input, you’ve got lots of features but no soul.

I agree that too many compromises can yield a soulless product.  But, this is something that strong leadership could overcome.

Customers becoming the shadow board:

Digg’s most active users form a sort of shadow board of directors that guides the company. The end result is a very nice place to hang out for those 250,000 or so hard core Digg users. But for the rest of the Internet, not so much.

Change could be hard for hardcore users.  But the total addressable market (not the rest of the Internet) is who the product should be defined for, not just hardcore users.

It’s not a black and white situation – perhaps the degree of customer responsiveness depends on the size of a market and market penetration.  If a company has 80% of a market that is not rapidly changing, should they be highly responsive to customers?

Digg may be too in touch with their hardcore users.  But do we know what would happen if they stopped listening?  Maybe the market for socially curated news is small, and Digg has them hostage?  If so Digg would one day wake up to find themselves with a product vision, but no users and no ad revenue.

While Arrington has an interesting perspective, I found the article to be as much about Leadership as Product. It speaks to the need for Product Managers to have strong leadership skills.

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