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Customer-centric or vision-centric? Is crowdsourcing overhyped?

I am a dyed-in-the-wool customer service evangelist, but I have always resisted the crowdsourcing idea. Taken too far, crowdsourcing is miles worse than designing by committee, especially since the crowdsourcing committee includes any maroon who happens through your door.

In response to Facebook’s recent user interface changes — and then their prompt backpedalling — Michael Arrington has some pretty strong words for Facebook: don’t listen to any of your users ’cause they’re just stupid, anyway.

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.

So I’m surprised that Facebook, which has stared down its users so many times in the past, is folding on the most recent redesign flareup and reverting back to some old features. Just because, oh, a million people demanded it. . . .

Someday, if they’re not careful, someone is going to do to Facebook what Facebook did to MySpace, who in turn did it to Friendster. Making users happy is a suckers game. Pushing the envelope is what makes you a winner.

He’s right. But he’s also way wrong. If, your product redesign is, in fact, poor in concept and execution (or just plain sucks, as is the case with Facebook), then you want those million people bellyaching about it. How else will you know you screwed up? Would you rather your customer take a hike, like, to somebody else’s product?

It’s the age-old question that the crowdsourcing fanatics have irretrievably blurred: should a company be customer-centric or vision-centric when considering product features?

The answer is surprisingly simple. It depends. It depends on whether the customer’s right (which isn’t all the time). Customers are right in two situations: 1) when the customer is genuinely right (those million bellyachers on Facebook) and 2) when the customer is wrong but being right means all your customers go away.

Crowdsourcing practiced correctly is about mining the customer base for the best ideas. Not all ideas. The best ones. In the case of Facebook, the bright young things in the interface development lab took their eye of the ball. Thank god for the bellyachers.

I once worked with a project management software team which catered to creative firms and established great individual relationships with each client. Whenever a client would ask for a feature, the president of the company would immediately request that feature from the development team, no matter where they were in working on the application. Needless to say, this is a process that doomed the software to always being an also-ran. As well as ratcheting up development costs.

I am, of course, more than interested in your opinion of the Facebook changes and their response to customer complaints.

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