Those pesky customers

steve_jobs3It is funny that whenever I teach (or lecture, or cajole) software engineering teams about the necessity for customer centricity, I almost inevitably get challenged with the example of Steve Jobs’ Apple.   Jobs did not care about focus groups, Jobs did not task his teams to deeply mine customer data… he just told them what was right and they did it.  Sometimes they got an Apple Lisa out of it, but it was from Jobs’ mind that the iPod, iPhone, and Mac Air sprang forth.

The exception that does not really prove the rule

Well I do not know precisely what to do with Mr. Jobs’ legacy in this context.  I could try to argue how much of his innovation came on the shoulders of others.  The original Mac UI and mouse paradigm having started at Xerox Parc and such… but that is not really relevant.  There is no denying that Jobs’ had the ability to tap into latent need of his customers.

thMAJ42OAXLatent need?  Yup, that is when you give customers what they desperately want, but they do not even know they want it.  For example, Henry Ford is famous for saying

If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.

Nobody got rich delivering faster horses… or at least not as rich as Mr. Ford got delivering automobiles to the middle and working classes.

I am the decider

So maybe Jobs and Ford are exceptional.   That does not change the need for understanding your customers (with hard data).   Just recently I was talking to a software entrepreneur who had just launched a new app targeted at fitness trainers and the gyms they work at.   He told me he was dismayed to find all these features that were missing that trainers and gym managers wanted and needed to make the app useful to them.   I started to suggest that this was good news and this limited release gave him precious data about his customers.  His response surprised me.  He said that all these ex-Microsoft guys that work for him suggested a beta release to collect data but he HATED that idea.  He told me this was his vision, and it was that vision he wanted to see realized, resulting in great success for the app.

Hmmmm…

I am thrilled to see ex *Microsoft* guys associated with customer centricity and data-driven quality.  This is a stark change from just a short while ago, and one that I can humbly claim to have been some part of.   And I guess I should not be shocked that every entrepreneur fancies himself the next Jobs with a Jobsian vision, but I also hope that such entrepreneurs can learn that perhaps they are not, and that data about customers, their problems, and what thrilling those customers with the perfect solution looks like, is perhaps the most powerful tool for success.

Culture of data and experimentation

amazon-instant-video-06-535x535In closing consider the case of my current boss, Jeff Bezos.  Bezos certainly had (and has) a vision for Amazon, but he said early on (and later codified) that Amazon will focus what is right for the customer.  Certainly there are many “Jeff projects” that go to production without a focus group and based purely on Jeff’s vision, but there is always metrics that everyone knows up front by which we will assess the idea, use to change it, or scrap it altogether.  I remember in the early days of Amazon Instant Video when we first launched streaming.  Jeff was sure that the free preview should play the first n minutes of the movie, so that is what we implemented.  The data quickly showed that this is not what people wanted, and they wanted the traditional preview/trailer.  Sure we all knew that would be the case… or did we?  Without first trying this idea we truly did not know… perhaps this is what people had been waiting for and it would be Amazon’s advantage?  It wasn’t, and that is fine… this is the culture of experimentation driven by real users and real data that a company needs to embrace to succeed.

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One Response to “Those pesky customers”

  1. Seth Eliot's Blog » Blog Archive » More on the old versus new Microsoft Says:

    […] have made the point before (Those pesky customers) that unless your name is Jobs, you would be best served by using real data to understand your […]

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