Product Feedback: Sometimes the Customer Does Know Best

If I like an application or see one with potential, I usually write the author or company that made it with a feature suggestion explaining why I want to do it, and how it would add value to an application — sometimes a great amount of value. Occasionally, I’ll receive a human written response that explains upcoming features along those line, says they’ll consider it, or explains some technical limitation. Either way, I will have to wait months if not years to see a feature added if it is ever added at all. I appreciate the feedback to my feedback. It lets me know the company or individual is receptive to comments.

One of the things I cannot stand is when a company sends me is an automated reply thanking me for the feedback. Big companies, I forgive slightly more, but small shops should probably take a minute to let users know their breath wasn’t wasted if they want to foster a good relationship with their customers.

After a programmer makes a great app, their next challenge is getting the word out. Unfortunately engineers tend to think differently than mere mortals: in general, the more brilliant an engineer the less likely they are to have the social skills to market their great apps, I have found.

Now not all engineers are social inept, but I can see where the ones that are less tolerant of the unwashed masses are coming from. On occasion, when I figure out a cool new way to do something, I am really excited to put it in action. But usually, I want to make it all but invisible to a user. So what might have taken me a few weeks of blood, sweat and tears, shows up as a menu option or a simple click, click, click. Then the real crusher:

User: “So, what.”

Me: “So, what? Don’t your realize that you can just click a few times and type in two fields and it does the work that would take 15 minutes or more?”

User: “Oh. (Meh.)”

So, I get it, developers are vastly unappreciated by people because they don’t know how much time a good one saves people who use their systems. So, it is natural to become jaded and not care what people think and even dismiss any idea, even it is a good one. This is a natural learned bias I try not to apply to people who offer suggestions. It can be tough but, I find the best way to remove bias is to simply forget the source and focus solely on the message. While this person might have no concept that while it would be cool to be able to add a range of items to a list be defining the variables, they do not understand how difficult implementation can be. Hell, they don’t understand what a variable is, much less the array one would need to either construct or pull from a feed in order to do it.

But then when they give you an idea, you can take it and run with it: what was once an auto-item generator is now a bounds for a report generation or just one part of automating close to full database entries when only a few variables change from record to record, but all must be recorded, even though they all go to the same linking tables. Using this friends’ idea, I was able to cut about 20 seconds off each item generation. Soon, it will be about 2 minutes once I add more fields. And multiply that by 12 or 24 and you have a way to allow 1 person to do what would have taken an hour in 15 minutes or less. It is this sort of thing that makes listening to the unwashed masses a highly valuable skill. It is similar to listening to children for solutions that would be obvious to someone not too familiar with a subject. Sometimes in-depth knowledge of the inner-workings of things prevents us from seeing things clearly because we cannot see the forest for the trees. So, despite the ton of naïve ideas, there are some gold ones in there.

Also, one thing I notice is the second some feedback from a customer gets insulting, developers tend to shut down and stop listening, and instead focus on the tone of the message, not the content. The usual response is telling the person  to shove it, and discarding their words. Sure, this might be the appropriate response, if you can put your ego aside long enough to extract a valuable message (if there was one) from the content you have won.

One thing I tend to do when angry with companies is let them know, but if I shut up, it is worse. I have realized telling a company their problems is useless, and I have better things to do, and companies to patronize. What is worse than being yelled at as a company? Being completely ignored. So, there are several companies I might mention here, or some I might not. I have to weigh the balance between giving them press (and telling them what they need to look at) or giving people warnings. I have yet to decide how to handle it with a several. The thing is most of these companies have no idea what I did professionally: I evaluated software and hardware for enterprise fitness for several years and still do it on occasion. Hell, I consulted for around 6 figures worth of gear purchased in the last year personally all for small businesses and home users. Not a lot by some standards, but still significant if your company lands on my good side. Oh, and ask me how many people complained about my recommendations: 0.

Your customers might be paying customers or colleagues. Everyone can have a valuable idea, so “keep your ears on.” The minute a company stops listening to paying customers is the minute they start to decline. Does this mean a company has to do everything a customer wants? No, for reasons above: a lot of bad ideas will surface from armchair quarterbacks. It just means that those few that have valuable insight should be heeded, but to do that, you have to keep listening.

Thanks for reading.

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