Paradox: Lead vs. Listen in Product Development

This is a problem I’ve struggled with for more than 20 years: ideally, does product development lead, listen, or both? Is the ideal developer a crabby older sibling who knows better, or a compliant servant? Do you build what’s good for the customer, or what the customer wants?

puzzleThey aren’t always the same thing. Think about how software becomes so feature-rich that it slows to a crawl and drives its users crazy. Isn’t that because developers listen to customers, and every customer wants some additional bell or whistle, so they add them all in? Think about leading word processors and spreadsheets, and all the different things they can do.

A few years ago I wanted to publish a presentation tool (software) that wouldn’t let its users do boring bullet point text-filled slides. It would have defaulted to a big graphic and a title for each slide, and allowed occasional very big type-size bullet points, so only a few would fit. I couldn’t get that idea to fly, so I dropped it.  How were we going to tell people they couldn’t add more text?

And if you want a very broad example, visible almost everywhere, take restaurants. What do you think? Do most restaurants lead, by giving customers excellent healthy food, at the expense of flavor? Or do they give customers not-so-healthy food full of not-so-healthy ingredients, but that tastes better?

Returning to the United States to live in Palo Alto in 1981, after 10 years living in Mexico City, I looked for the occasional high-end Mexican restaurant offering good Mexican food (such as real ceviche, to name just one menu item) instead of greasy stereotyped burrito stuff. I talked once to an entrepreneur who tried. “The buying public won’t let it happen,” she said. “People think of Mexican as cheap and greasy, not good food.” (Happily, this has changed somewhat in the 20+ years since; I had real ceviche at Ola in Miami and at Cevicheria La Mar in San Francisco last month. Both are good restaurants.)

So here’s the question: what are you going to do? Listen to customers? Lead by giving the world what it needs, whether it wants it or not? Or both? Which is more successful? Which is more satisfying?



  • Greg Gerber says:

    Definitely a hybrid of both. The best is when the user requests a feature that you were already considering. Validation. Build it.

  • yst says:

    I think to give people what they never asked for, you need a very visionary leader to do that.
    And that’s how some companies grow extremely fast.

  • Kristina Thorpe says:

    Isn’t Steve Jobs known for showing us what we didn’t know we wanted?
    And the next time you’re driving down the 101, close to Santa Barbara, and get hungry for lunch or dinner, well, here’s where Zagat says to go: “…one goes to the Santa Barbara’s La Super-Rica Taco to be born again in the bosom of the best Mexican food found in the state of California and possibly the whole United States of America. Don’t just take my word for it – Julia Child, who lived nearby, said it was the best. And she should know.”
    Many thoughts to ponder in this short post.
    Thank you,

  • Kathy Hogeveen says:

    Thanks for the question. I’ve spent over 25 years in the software industry and watched some great software not make it. Don’t shoot me,but I thought WordPerfect was a better product than Word. In fact I developed a complete Material Requirements Planning system in Lotus.

    Ok, enough about showing my age. I do believe you need a balance; give the customers enough of what they want along with what we know they need. Build their interest with the bells & whistle but follow through with the necessary tools to keep their loyalty. The successful software companies have done this.

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