People Engage with Applications, Not Users

Seth Godin asks a wonderful question: “Do you have a people strategy?” It’s a quick read dedicated to reminding us that people, not users, engage with applications and services to make their lives better. If you can make people’s lives better with your application or service, they’ll come back. If you create a new need where there was no perceived need before, you might have created a billion dollar opportunity.

So why is it that so many of our product cycles are devoted to “users” who can learn new “features” that will allow them to “achieve their goals” instead of understanding better what people need by listening to them?

Every Designer’s Fear of the Customer

When you talk to a really good designer, one of their great fears is that a simple, elegant design might be ruined by incessant demands from customers who want lots of capabilities that they will never use (and in fact, don’t really need.) A good example is this concept video by designer Philip Pauley of his “helicopter-boat-plane”: it sounds cool, but the market demand seems to be … underdeveloped as of yet.

Even if the customer is not always right …

Customers (or prospective customers) give you valuable signals when they ask you for things that they want. I agree with the idea that the customer is not always right, but they always feel that they are right. So the more of their helicopter boat plane ideas that you can build (quickly, without a lot of extra frills), the more you will be able to test to see if the idea of one customer actually fosters a habit that other customers might follow.

You can get closer to the customer’s actual (or perceived) need by asking them for only one change: “If you could choose anything to change about this product to make it better for you to use more often, what’s the one thing you would pick to change?”

Gain credibility by delivering some of the things they ask for.

As a team, if you make a list of these “one thing items,” periodically deliver some of them, and highlight the customer who asked you for this change, you will win brand advocates, customer evangelists, and generally understand who your “hero users” are. This will not necessarily translate into market success or market validation. But it will give you much more room and capability to try to build an everyday product that real people use, instead of crafting an application that is utilized by users.


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