Do Disruptive Companies Listen To Their Customers?

According to an article from Valleywag, Mark Zuckerberg had some not-too-pleasant-sounding things to say about Facebook users:

“He said something like ‘the most disruptive companies don’t listen to their customers.'” Another tipster who has seen the email says Zuckerberg implied that companies were “stupid” for “listening to their customers.” The anti-customer diktat has many Facebook employees up in arms, we hear.

It’s difficult to tell what Zuckerberg’s real tone was, since the above is hearsay. If his point is that a company never has to care about or listen to its customers, he is dead wrong. On the other hand, if he believes that innovation rarely bubbles up from one’s user base, then he is correct. It is the balance between the two forces that makes or breaks a company.

Users, especially in groups, can rarely offer coherent views of innovative features. That’s not to say that a few individuals here and there can’t, because they certainly will, but a company cannot rely on mass acceptance of a concept before investing in it. Innovation, by definition, involves features that most people haven’t thought of. Focus groups are notorious for diluting and homogenizing new ideas, for better or worse, and often don’t provide a particularly predictive model of success of the ideas.

Additionally, most people are creatures of habit, and have a bias toward the status quo. Most innovative feature tend to attract a relatively small number of early adopters first, and gain critical mass later (or sometimes, they don’t).

There’s nothing wrong with introducing innovative features or designs that don’t appeal to the masses at the outset. However, you must remain open to the possibility that your features aren’t as innovative or useful as you think. The question then is how to know the difference. One bad sign is if the masses openly reject your features. Even if they really are better by some objective measure, you have to remember that your product lives or dies by the opinions of the many; lest you suffer the fate of New Coke.

If Zuckerberg used the term “disruptive” to describe Facebook, it’s a fair question to ask just what kind of disruption he sees Facebook engaging in. Does he seek to disrupt his own site? That seems hardly wise. If he means simply a company that embraces disruptive technologies, then fine. However, as the 800 lb gorilla of the social networking scene (and one that has yet to turn a profit), Facebook can’t afford to just charge headlong toward every new technology fad (such as Twitter), throwing caution (and users) to the wind.

Personally I don’t think the new UI is as terrible as some do (though I do think there are a couple of annoyances/glitches that will hopefully get worked out).  Neither do I see it as any great improvement over the old UI.

Where Facebook seems to have failed is not necessarily the UI, but the rollout. They kept the new UI available for users to experiment with, but I suspect only a very small minority of users got to experiment with it in the time given before it replaced the old UI.

Facebook did a better job of handling its previous UI overhaul, leaving the old UI as the standard and the new UI available via new.facebook.com to those who wanted to experiment. They offered the two in parallel long enough for more users to try it out and get accustomed to it, and presumably to handle complaints and bugs.

In this case, I think what would have been appropriate would be to offer a new tab for the stream-like interface they have now. Then, let people discover it, try it out, and accept or reject it. If the alternative UI truly is disruptive, then people would naturally migrate to it as their favorite interface, and once critical mass is achieved, only then decide whether to make it the default (or only) UI.

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