It’s commonly thought that in a perfect world every product would be designed for its users, by its users. After all, who better than users can help shape a product to meet the needs of, well, users? Companies therefore focus a great deal of attention in determining how users are likely to respond to a product, service or upgrade.
The consumer-tech industry, in particular, is sensitive to user engagement. After all, we get engagement data in real-time, not to mention all the direct user feedback via social channels and other media. This constant interaction and incoming data, with the added competitive nature of our space, combine to create a atmosphere in which software companies typically go to great lengths to gauge what users want.
Dropbox, for example, famously produced a video mock-up of its product. The company shared it broadly on the web and collected a lot of prospective user feedback early on. This was a smart move for Dropbox, as it was able to discern exactly what its potential users would want their product to look like before writing nearly a single line of code.
This familiar piece of “lean” start-up wisdom, however, has its own inherent limitations and should not be applied blindly to any type of situation. As CEO of Dashlane, a relatively new software product that securely stores important personal information like passwords, ID’s, notes, and speeds form-filling and online shopping, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits and limitations of user feedback when it comes to making product decisions. Here are a few lessons that we’ve learned :
1. A product must balance competing interests. It is not about making a compromise on the core benefits of the product. Nor is it about making a compromise on the passion you put into making your product outstanding. The need for compromise is the result of two converging constraints:
- Startups work with severely limited resources and, as a result, constantly prioritize the use of their product and engineering resources by having to decide when working on new features, “Should we do A first, or B first?”
- Not only may your users not agree on your product pipeline, they are also very likely not the right gauge when it comes to deciding which features should come first — or even which should be part of the final product. The opinions of early-adopting, tech-savvy users may very well be driving you in a direction that is completely the opposite of what will allow you to broadly grow your user-base.
2. You cannot ask your users to design your product for you. Disruptive products are about building things that do not exist, and in most cases things that people cannot even yet imagine. If your users knew what would be the next incredible product to change the world, chances are some of them would already be building it. Great companies are built by fantastic entrepreneurs with the vision to build things no one else conceived of before them.
3. There is an advantage to being small. So what, then, is the best way to involve users in making a great product? Clearly, the answer depends where you are in the path to scaling your product. Once you have millions of users, introducing something completely new in your product is a much bigger risk. Alienating even 5% of your user base when you have 10 million users means angering half a million people. This is probably one of the main reasons why companies, as they grow larger, tend to iterate at a much lower frequency, even when they have considerably more resources. Big companies have to rely on extensive usability testing with closed focus groups before they can release new products or features to the outside world
By contrast, when you are still small, you can afford to make mistakes. As a matter of fact, you should make mistakes, because you will have many less opportunities for mistakes later in the life of your company. And your users will help you iterate, kill bad features, and grow good ones faster. And they will likely forgive you for trying new things, especially if you are engaging their feedback.
And sometimes, there may even be good surprises. At Dashlane, our goal is to build a dependable product, and our users are asked trust it with personal and sensitive information. We also knew that at some point, we wanted to add a system for incentives for Dashlane users in order to not only make the product more fun to use — we don’t view fun and secure as incompatible — but also because this would allow us to reward our most active users and advocates by giving them access free to premium features. We knew there was a risk in doing this, because making a secure product fun can seem at odds. Indeed, some of our alpha testers and dedicated userse told us they thought it was a bad idea. But we went ahead and took the risk because our scale makes it still possible – we just came out of beta a two months ago after all – and I’m glad we did. The new version has been out for a month now, and our users love it, tweet about it constantly, and, just as importantly, almost none have complained.
Had we been bigger, we might never even have tried it. So we owe a big thanks to our users for allowing us to take risks and build a better product together.
Ultimately, it seems wise for tech start-ups to seek but not rely entirely on user feedback, particularly if what you’re trying to accomplish is disruptive – which should of course be the goal of every tech company. Make sure to strike a balance between gathering users’ opinions and gunning hard for ideas you really believe in. Both you and your users might be rather happily surprised.