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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