Involving Customers in Your Product Design: What a Difference a Decade Makes

Back in the summer of 1993 I was an intern at Microsoft (a couple of years before I got back there for a real job), and I have a vivid recollection of a conversation I had with a product manager. When I expressed my frustration about the product design being process driven by focus groups, as opposed to the collection of real feedback from the field (i.e. from real users outside of the marketing lab), the guy sneered back at me that Microsoft didn’t need me (i.e. Joe Plain User) to improve Excel, which I believe was the specific program I had ideas about. I was shocked by his reaction not only for its self-congratulating smugness but also because it felt so out of touch in the face of obvious shortcomings in the products. And the worse is, this is actually a good marketer I’m talking about, not some completely clueless jerk.
Well, guess what, a decade later here’s the Windows Server Feedback site, created for the very purpose of involving customers in the spec process:

"Help us improve Windows Server by providing us with your suggestions and ideas. All feedback submitted will be sent to the Windows Server Development Team for review and analysis. Your ideas can impact Windows Server in many ways, and might even be incorporated into new Service Packs, Feature Packs, or the next Windows Server release."

Of course a company still needs to own its roadmap with proper prioritization based on an assessment of cost/opportunity that individual users or companies can’t possibly do (and, believe it or not, the proclaimed interest of your customers is not always aligned with your business, just because customers tend to want everything for free). But as far as tapping your users’ mind for real world feedback and ideas, I was right, and I was right, which feels good once in a while! Some people at Microsoft have for a long time been impressed by the flexibility and openness of smaller, more nimble players who have been solliciting and acting on feedback all along. It’s nice to see the "we know better" attitude is fading away. Warm fuzzy feelings of community aside, acknowledging that you can’t possibly have all the good ideas and that you can get great suggestions for free, is the pragmatic and sound thing to do from a business perspective.
Here’s hoping this initiative is not lip service and will be replicated to other product lines. Success will be measured by actual features and improvements that Microsoft will be able to point to and say: this came from real people out there.

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