Is Facebook’s Zuckerberg Right? Sometimes Listening to Your Customers is “Stupid.”

There is a lot of talk this week about the new Facebook redesign and how much some users dislike it.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg allegedly said that “the most disruptive companies don’t listen to their customers.”  On the surface this sounds completely insane!  We’re supposed to listen to customers, aren’t we?

Well, sort of, sometimes.

There is an accepted wisdom in Product Marketing that asking users or customers what the next feature of a product should be almost never results in anything innovative.  The problem is that the answers you get will be bound by the users frame of reference and existing experiences.  For example when I worked at Siebel years ago and we asked customers about what new features they would like to see in a Customer Relationship Management system, not a single one of them said “Gee, I wish you guys would host this thing for me.”

Robert Scoble makes this point with the following anecdote:

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.”

A better way of driving innovation is to focus on customer problems and desires.  The more deeply you understand those, the closer you will get to coming up with an innovative way of solving/meeting them that isn’t bound by what exists in the market today.  If back at Siebel, we had asked instead: “Why aren’t your sales folks currently using a Customer Relationship Management solution?” or even if we had spent more time thinking about why CRM deployments failed, we would have come to the conclusion that the process of configuring and deploying a CRM solution was too expensive, too difficult, etc.  Hello, Salesforce.com.

Now where things start to get really interesting is when you are thinking about combining product categories or creating a new one.  The questions you ask are different.  Radically different.  If I’m with a customer and I’m trying to understand their problems related to mobile email for example, I might completely miss the fact that what users want is to be able to communicate when they want to, where they want to and sometimes email is not the best way to do that, even though it might be what they use today.  You have to be working from a completely different frame of reference.  You might start thinking about questions like “What is stopping you from using your smart phone as your primary computing device?” or “When you are on a business trip, why do you bring your laptop instead of just your smart phone?”

This gets extra tricky when you have an existing product with existing customers that you are trying to bring along with you to this new, uncharted space.  Maybe they just want a decent phone and not an all singing, all dancing mobile work platform.  At least right now they do and unlike you and your company they aren’t concerned about what they might want to buy in the future.  The problem of course is that once they use one, they might decide they do want it afterall.  With respect to the Facebook redesign, the folks at VentureBeat conclude:

While some of the redesign’s implementation has been handled poorly,
the overall idea behind it is the right one. As a lead Facebook
engineer and other developers said recently, feeds and status updates are the most efficient ways for users to communicate.
Users never like change because it disrupts the way they are
comfortable with doing thing.  Facebook, for its part, tells us that it
is listening to the many complaints that users have been making. As
with previous designs, Facebook did, in fact, ask for user feedback
ahead of time…

Facebook should listen to its users in some regards — but if every company only
listened to its users, there would be no innovation. If the changes
made are ultimately for the better, as Facebook clearly believes, then
it needs to suck it up and get through this growing pain. And so do its
users.

This is a classic “Innovator’s Dilemma” problem.  Move too quickly and you risk your current (and often very profitable) market position if unhappy users flee to your competitor’s products but stay where you are and you risk, as Christensen says “being held captive by your customers.”, leaving the door open for more innovative solutions to gain share in the future.

So then, coming back to the comments that Mark Zuckerberg allegedly said this week, is he right?  Only time will tell whether or not he’s making the right moves and at the right pace and so far it looks like users are sticking with the platform for now.  Either way, from an innovation standpoint, it will be interesting to watch what happens to Facebook as it tries to push into the future.

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39 thoughts on “Is Facebook’s Zuckerberg Right? Sometimes Listening to Your Customers is “Stupid.””

  1. Nice analysis. Seems like current users of a particular way of doing things suffer from a sort of tunnel vision, and the last thing I would say about the Facebook redesign is that it’s short-sighted or an incremental evolution.

  2. Hi Malcolm,
    Thanks for the comment. I’m not a heavy Facebook user so I’m the last person that should be commenting on the design itself. What I find more interesting is what they are trying to do in terms of pushing the platform into new territories and markets while trying to make sure they don’t push so hard that users give up on them. My suspicion is that the pain of switching is high enough that most users will stick it out even if they are annoyed. Time will tell.
    April

  3. Great post April.
    I don’t use Facebook regularily, but the point of the article is right on in my opinion. Applicable to many places I have worked for in the tech industry.
    -mike.

  4. April
    Is his argument that twitter is attacking facebook from below?
    What is the new value curve that Twitter is riding, if that is the case?
    In his argument, Zuckerburger is acting like he is the incumbant trying to fend off an innovative attacker. The question becomes, what is the value of the new UI and features?
    Paul

  5. When you are pushing a disruptive innovation, you get a client and listen to that client. Then, you go into the vertical market. Since you coded the client’s visualization, you might find your that your application isn’t the normative paradigm that most customers practice. Asking those customers will only weaken your application.
    As an example, say you’ve written an application that performs throughput accounting. The normative paradigm would be ABC cost accounting. The paradigm that ABC replaced was traditional cost accounting. You application requires the adoption of throughput accounting. The only people you can really listen to are the practitioners of throughput accounting. It wouldn’t make sense to code ABC or traditional cost accounting functions into your application.
    The distinctions here are paradigmatic or distinctions of a generation of cost accountants. Cost accountancy is a functional culture. Market segmentation doesn’t recognize these distinctions.
    Listening to your customers can result in average functionality. Average functionality embeds hidden costs in the cost structure of customer’s organization. These costs stem from the lack of fitness between the interface and the meanings, cultural meaninngs, embedded in the application.
    A variable is just a number. Meaning arrives with labels on the interface or view, and the relationships embedded in the database records deep in the model, and computations.
    The lack of semantic consistency isn’t visible to developers, but it speaks loudly to users, particularly users, members of the functional culture, that have adopted the paradigm.

  6. Hi Paul,
    That is certainly one point of view, although I think that Facebook is trying to make a much broader play than merely competing with Twitter. Their own site defines Facebook as a tool that is “Giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” That’s a broad mission and one where virtually any company in the communications space may be in their sights.
    April

  7. Hi David,
    Thanks for the comment.
    I think that you are right in that any disruptive innovation is going to have supporters and detractors and there are always some customers that are more willing than others to adopt the newest thing.
    What Facebook is doing I would argue is trying to create something that nobody has ever seen before (at least not in one platform). The vision from that isn’t coming from their existing customers, nor should it (or could it).
    April

  8. April,
    Excellent post. Really like how you tied FB’s redesign back to the Innovator’s Dilemma.
    Will give credit to Facebook for taking a risk and really push the communication strategy. Will say that they need a bit more work on their external selling of the idea (and letting internal conversations leak).
    Josh

  9. Hi Josh,
    Thanks for the comment! I agree that they do seem to have a bit of a marketing problem when it comes to rolling out new features. They don’t seem to be doing enough communication about the reasoning behind the features but that could also be because they are merely steps toward a longer-term goal that can’t be articulated in a way folks will really understand yet.
    April

  10. April,
    Startups can succeed by not listening to customers and following their own path. Or those creating new experiences (e.g., Apple iPod/iTunes). Companies with 100MM users would do well not to ignore customers, and if Zuckerberg is truly discounting customer feedback, he’s making a serious mistake.
    Listening to customers, however, means listening to a broad spectrum of feedback. It does not mean only listening to the loudest (or most-followed) customers. [Facebook’s core benefit to users actually causes feedback to be amplified.] Any product with a large installed base will not get 100% approval on anything. The key is to understand the patterns in the customer discussions. For example, with the Facebook redesign, I’ve also heard people say the redesign makes it more useful to them. Who else is saying that? How is the “I hate the redesign” pattern comparing to the “It helps me use the tool better” pattern? Which pattern has staying power?
    You also can’t act on all customer feedback right away. In the case of Facebook, a redesign will take time for users to get accustomed to it. It’s prudent to see if the furor dies down (as it did with the last redesign).
    If people are still complaining 60 days from now, or using the tool less, Zuckerberg may be changing his tune.
    regards, John

  11. Hi John,
    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
    I couldn’t agree with you more than the situation is totally different for a startup than it is for an established company. It’s for exactly that reason that it is hard for large companies to hold on to their market in the face of a disruptive innovation.
    I also agree that the real test is a couple of months from now when things have settled down and we get to see if ultimately the re-design caused users to stop using Facebook, or if they just get used to it.
    April

  12. Hi April,
    Great post, and I agree.
    In the noise and fury around the re-design, many bloggers and users have suggested that Facebook didn’t “test” the redesign with its users. I think that’s highly unlikely.
    I suspect that Facebook did in fact “listen” to its users – but not what they *said* exclusively, but also by what they *did*.
    I might be wrong, but my guess is that Facebook’s observations of how the new UI impacted user *behaviors* (not *opinions* or *first reactions*) that gave them confidence to launch the new UI to the entire community.
    From what I understand, Facebook is an iterative and data-driven culture. Thus, I’m willing to bet that in tests of 1,000’s of users the new UI elicited behavior Fb wants to encourage (e.g. more updates? more comments? more repeat visits, etc.).
    Its the difference between understanding how users THINK they do things vs. how users ACTUALLY do things. (see “Designing the Obvious, (hoekman))

  13. Hi Daniel,
    Thanks so much for the comment – I totally agree. I think it is unlikely that Facebook didn’t test the design and like you say when they were testing it the criteria that they used to measure the success or failure of that test surely went beyond user opinons.
    April

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  18. You are all perhaps missing the point?
    “Not listening to your customer” has several angles.
    One is “not listening to your customer when he tells you how to design your product, but instead, listening to the core needs”. That is usually entirely sensible, of course, as any innovator will tell you.
    The other is “not listening to your customers when they tell you your newly introduced ‘innovation’ truly sucks”. That is what Facebook is doing right now, and it makes no sense at all. having your customers hate you is never a good policy in the long run, and I suspect Facebook have gone to that side,.
    Finally, “PR that shows you apparently displaying disdain for your customer” is never good. Yeah, if you are Air Canada you can get away with that, but most of us live in the real world.

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  22. I think that Zuckerberg may be right – but it could be a destructive statement if taken too literally because it would embolden a lot of software developers to take too much ‘artistic license’. Not everyone can be a visionary.
    The new changes in facebook are an acknowledgement to the what has been the most significant part of facebook – the user status. Twitter is a huge phenomenon and its simply a facebook app built around the status updates.

  23. Customers don’t know what they want. And to assume otherwise is folly. When you begin relying totally on customers to be your product development department, you are asking for serious trouble. I am not saying that you should discount customer input. However, asking customers what they want is a marketing question and requires experienced marketers to answer.

  24. Thanks for the comment Michael. I think in the end the only way to really judge whether people love or hate the changes is to look at the usage stats. Time will tell if they’ve annoyed customers to the point of switching or if you are merely hearing a vocal few.
    April

  25. I agree with that. More than anything I think Facebook has a vision of being THE place where people interact. It makes sense to try to work in elements from other products on the market that have similar goals.
    April

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  27. Hi, I thought you provided some great insight and you opened my own eyes in terms of how to look at the Facebook redesign. Similar to you, I don’t spend much time using Facebook either. However I do know some people who use it much like the way we use Twitter.
    You’ll have to excuse me as I didn’t get to read all the comments before submitting my own comments. I really need to study for a crash course I’m taking but I saw your article and really wanted to comment. Please excuse me if some of my thoughts are incomplete.
    I think Mark wants to capture the market on those users who aren’t on Twitter and who don’t know about Twitter. From a number of users perspective, Facebook dwarfs Twitter users, so he should be able to impress upon the majority of users who don’t know about Twitter yet. I’m guessing that the small percentage of people who’ve been complaining about the interface are also Twitter users. Now is the right time to make that design change to Facebook as news about Twitter is gaining major traction via celebrities and the media.
    Facebook has friends, Twitter has followers. Twitter is much more random in terms of relationships, its about building new relationships based on the expression of activities. Facebook relies on your existing and past relationships and is much more structured.
    One thing I’ve noticed. I think Product Managers need to take a different approach when looking at the capabilities of any sort of service/software offering. I feel thoughts and opinions that worked for software designed for enterprise-class customers won’t necessarily work for Twitter/Facebook users.
    Twitter is the offspring if Facebook and MySpace (feature sets) were to ‘marry’. That’s how I see Twitter today.
    Gotta study now. kthxbye

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  29. I think the whole discussion about “disruptive companies don’t listen to their customers” is a bit of a red herring.
    The issue is a lot simpler: the new Facebook interface just plain sucks!
    Everything Zuckerberg is trying to accomplish in terms of moving the business forward could have been accomplished *without* turning the Facebook main page into a stream of random noise.
    Prediction: it won’t be long before Facebook backs off the changes, maybe by publicly eating crow, but more likely my making the new layout optional.

  30. Hi Sam,
    Thanks a lot for the comment and your perspective. I think Facebook is moving toward being a platform that can cover many different types of interactions between “friends”, however you define that. I see Twitter’s mandate as being narrower than that but they are still a very immature company compared to Facebook (their business model is still largely not publicly defined). I for one am interested to see how all of these platforms – Facebook, Myspace, Twitter evolve in the future.
    April

  31. LOL! I like your style John. That’s really what it boils down to in some ways isn’t it? If, on the way to delivering the broader vision, the user base gets completely annoyed, then their issue will be how to unroll some of the annoying stuff and replot the way forward.
    Thanks!
    April

  32. Great post!
    I think the flaw in facebook’s design was not the features themselves but the PR campaign the change. (the term I’ve seen used for this is Change Management) And to tie this back to your post, I think there was a communication gap between the innovation and “core customer problems”. A good example of this gap management is Meebo, where they announce or explain changes.
    As a fairly heavy user, I didn’t really understand the benefits of the changes and without that understanding I find the change frustrating.
    I know facebook is still a “startup” but when you have 100M users, I think you have to grow up a little and be more strategic with your product releases. It comes with the territory.

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  34. Hi April
    recently Facebook made it into the German prime time news with negative PR, because they changed their privacy rules, without having asked their customers before doing so (aca Facebook’s Privacy Flap).
    If I can assume he does not mean it in the old fashion way, then, I think he is right and he is wrong at the same time:
    – If you want to improve an existing product, you’d certainly ask customers
    – If you create a disruptive product, you’d better ask non customers.
    Recently I wrote about innovation by lead users, because I found an interesting information “Thus, …, lead user idea-generation projects clearly did generate new product concepts with much greater commercial potential than did traditional, non-LU methods” – Eric von Hippel (2005). These lead users are special customers, or non-customers, or sometimes customers of others. For more information, see http://www.produkt-manager.net/2009/lead-users-in-der-produktentwicklung/ (in German), or download the original study (English) links at the very end of this article.
    cheers, Andreas

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