Of late, we've noticed an intriguing trend, as smartphone makers use social media to directly ask their customers what they want in a phone. Two recent examples are executives from OnePlus and Xiaomi, both companies that are famous for engaging with their users and bringing in their points of view into the products that are being built. Even as they have become big brands, both Xiaomi and OnePlus have not lost the connect with fans that made them influential beyond their size when they were starting out. But at the same time, one has to question the value of a product lead asking users about the specifications that users want, regardless of the weightage the company gives to those inputs.
"It's not the consumer's job to know what they want," is something that Apple's Steve Jobs said to Business Week in an interview carried nearly 20 years ago. He's not the only one to say so either - just recently, Netflix's Vice President Global Product Innovation Michael Spiegelman described a time when following user feedback, it started showing non-subscribers the service's full catalogue. "People would say, I wanna see the catalogue first, but when you're looking at the thousands of titles, it's very distracting," said Spiegelman. Despite iterating multiple versions based on an idea that should’ve been well received, what the company found was it wasn't driving sign-ups, and the company reverted to what new users to the site see today.
The co-founder of an Indian phone company that has since been acquired talks about how they were constantly getting feedback from customers, whose requirements led to a phone that simply didn't work.
"People are spec obsessed, and so we had 3GB RAM, 32GB storage, a 21-megapixel camera, QHD display, octa-core CPU, none of it was cheap back then,” said the former executive, who didn’t want to be named since he now works in a related field that overlaps his old startup. “But then they wanted good battery life also so we had to make the phone thicker, and then people complained that it was heavy." This kind of design-by-customer thinking was best lampooned by The Simpsons with a car called The Homer.
But while some companies do run into trouble by listening to customers too closely, does that mean that the opposite approach, as espoused by Apple, is the right path to take? Given the veneration that he receives in certain circles, it's no surprise that Steve Jobs' words took on the nature of a mantra, to be religiously recited by young CEOs convinced that they knew best. Unfortunately, not too many people actually know best. Even Jobs, despite his famous reality-distortion field, didn't. That he was able to steer Apple to amazing heights is a testament to his vision and relentless drive - as well as the ability to get talented people to work with him - but to look at that quote in isolation gives incomplete picture of building brands.
Eventually, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Jobs wasn't advocating that customers should be ignored. He was just saying that they shouldn't be the ones behind the steering wheel. Listening to what customers are saying, and figuring out what they really want, rather than just what they articulate, is what a company needs to be able to do. And yes, part of this involves asking the customers how much RAM they think they need in a phone. The real question is whether brands can go one step further, and figure out what will really make their phones worth buying.