Think You Know What You Want?

by Mark Datta

The customer is not king. Sounds like heresy, right? Perhaps put more accurately, the customer is not always king.

Two companies we have studied – Dropbox and Aardvark – espouse user-centric design as their guiding design philosophy. Essentially, products are designed around how users can, want and need to use a product – so no behaviour adjustments are required from the user to accommodate the product. It fits well with the lean start-up philosophy, using multiple rounds of iteration based on metric-driven assessments, and neatly embodies the ‘customer is king’ mantra.

But both companies deviate from this philosophy on at least one substantial aspect. Dropbox refuses to allow users to sync any folders which are outside of their local Dropbox folder. Aardvark refuses to maintain a searchable database of previous questions and answers. Neither would be particularly expensive or technologically challenging (from my outside-in impression).

Four possible explanations come to mind:

1.     ‘Democracy’: the wishes of one user group conflict with those of another group, and the loudest or most lucrative group wins
2.     ‘Protector’: customers don’t really know/say what they want, so the company protects them from themselves
3.     ‘Visionary’: founders can be very particular about the core of their product vision, and they’ll compromise on almost everything but this
4.     ‘Money’: when cash is at stake, customer wishes are sometimes trumped by the company’s need cash

We can disregard #1 and #4, because neither feature significantly affects other users, and neither feature would have a materially negative impact on profitability.

#2 seems more applicable to the Aardvark case, if we look at the second-order effects. Making the change may enhance the product in the near term, but it can fundamentally alter the product as it matures and grows. It would become a repository of knowledge – differently organised but similar to Wikipedia or Quora – rather than serving fresh, trusted knowledge to order. It could be argued that the former is a better model, but that is not what Aardvark is. Aardvark’s hypothesis is that customers want what it provides, so they protect that by forcing themselves to renounce the archive model and improve the quality and speed of fresh answers instead.

#3 seems more applicable to the Dropbox case. The vision is a simple product that just works. It should be impossible for users to screw up their computers, publish their credit card details in a public folder or lose track of their files. The feature could cause these problems in the hands of even an averagely savvy user. But, surely the feature could be hidden in an advanced section of the menu with a bold warning? That argument misses the point – perhaps a subtle one – that Dropbox is a location in itself. It’s not just an enhanced backup or file-sharing service. In the end, this comes down to ‘the vision thing’

We often don’t know what we want. So it’s either up to a ‘visionary’ to figure it out in advance for us – Steve Jobs and Vincent Van Gogh spring to mind. Or it’s up to a ‘protector’ to save us from ourselves – step forward Drew Houston of Dropbox, and the sage words of Eminem:

So be careful what you wish for
'Cause you just might get it
And if you get it then you just might not know
What to do wit' it, 'cause it might just
Come back on you ten-fold

Strategies which go against your customers’ desires are ineffective for most companies in most situations. But – like some benign dictatorships and arranged marriages – less choice can lead to a better outcome than we might expect.