The Risks of User Feedback

by Rocco Tarasi

The Risks of User FeedbackTo seek user feedback, or not to seek user feedback… that is the question.

Of course, I’m not talking about getting user feedback after you launch your product – you’d be crazy not to listen to what your users are telling you then. I’m talking about getting user feedback on your idea before you build it.

There is a common saying: “build what people want”. You can’t really argue with that. The hard part is figuring out what people want. It seems like a sound strategy to talk with potential customers about your product before you build it, but you must be careful how you use their feedback. Just because someone says “that’s a good idea” and “I would use that” doesn’t mean that they actually will when the time comes. Likewise, if people don’t think your idea is good, it doesn’t mean that it won’t become a huge success.

Consider Twitter. Imagine Twitter was your idea years ago, and you were going around to potential users asking them if they’d use a 140-character messaging tool, going even so far as to suggest it as a replacement for both email communication and news discovery. Most people would probably have dismissed the idea. But even if everyone said they loved it, that data wouldn’t have been any more accurate – it would only seem so now with 20/20 hindsight. The truth is that with a product like Twitter, you weren’t going to know if it was a hit until people started to use it.

An even better example is Airbnb. Their service allows people to rent out their couch or spare bedroom to travelers – mostly strangers! – as an alternative to hotels. Sound like a dumb idea? Pretty much every investor they talked to in 2008 said the idea was terrible. If they’d listened to the feedback of these investors – some of the most successful investors ever mind you – they’d never have built a business that today is raising a $100 million funding round at a $ $1 billion valuation. (TechCrunch)

Venerable investor Fred Wilson wrote in a post titled “Marketing” that:

“Early in a startup, product decisions should be hunch driven. Later on, product decisions should be data driven.”

and,

“Marketing is for companies who have sucky products. If you build something that is amazing (think Flipboard or Instagram or Instapaper) people will adopt it because it is amazing.”

As innovators we’d like to have more certainty as to whether our ideas will be successful or not, but the truth is it’s as much about trusting your gut as anything. Sometimes everyone says your idea is great and it fails; other times people hate it, and it’s a huge success. Your gut is the only scientific instrument you have to measure and make sense of your early feedback. Reminds me of this phrase: “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it”.

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Rocco TarasiRocco Tarasi was an accountant, investment banker, and CFO before becoming a technology entrepreneur. He is @RoccoTarasi on Twitter.

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