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The Loudest Voices are From the Edge

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 15, 2007

One of the first lessons I learned as an entrepreneur is that the loudest voices are from the edge.  In this case I was working on an early version of the software that would ultimately be bought by Borland and released as Quattro Pro.  QP was a spreadsheet originally concieved in Ye Olden Days before Windows.  It had a COWS (Character Oriented Windowing System) with full mouse support, pulldown menus, multiple windows, and all the rest.  Those loud voices I mentioned were from the owners of various offbeat video cards and printers that we had not yet announced support for.  Given the volume of their protestations, you’d think we had failed to deliver support for 90% of the world.  It was a real crisis, and so we rolled up our sleeves and started to try to see how many of these devices we could support.  The customer, after all, is always right, aren’t they?

You can probably see where this is going.  No matter how many of these cards and printers we supported, there were always more requests.  As far as we could see, each new card added at best a couple of new users.  It was a losing proposition.  So we backed off.  A lesson had been learned.  The loudest voices may not count for much.  In fact, the bleeding edge has a tendency to preselect loud voices.  Who else but someone bold and opinionated will choose to deviate from the mainstream path?  Who else will take the time to communicate so loudly with the vendor about their displeasures. 

The message here is not, “Ignore your customers.”  Rather, it’s to be suspicious of anecdotal evidence, and be aware that often the most vocal groups are really not very large.  It may still be valuable to support them from a PR standpoint, but don’t assume vocal is equivalent to large numbers.  Get some real market research done in order to find out.  These sorts of things are tragically knowable.

This is a mistake lots of Product Managers make.  They get upset when I ask them for real market research on exactly how many customers want a particular feature or platform.  Their view is that they’ve heard customes asking loudly, so there must be a lot.  It’s a mistake.  If you take it to the logical conclusion, you’ll spend all of your time building stuff for the Vocal Minority, and little will be done for the much more numerous and lucrative Silent Majority.  The latter mostly don’t complain loudly, they just take their business elsewhere if you don’t keep them satisfied. 

I was reminded of all this as I read a post from another blogger I follow.  Steve was upset because he had visited a retail site he wanted to buy from and couldn’t.  It seems their Rich UI makeover wasn’t working on his browser.  He couldn’t figure out why, and didn’t feel like it should be his problem.  His message was that if you have a web site you want 100% of people to get through no matter what, so Rich UI is a bad idea.  There is some wisdom in that, but it’s not clear whether it’s really the answer.  Presumably the Rich UI delivers a better User Experience and hence more sales.  That could easily more than offset a few unhappy campers, we don’t know for sure.

I don’t know what Steve was doing wrong, if he was doing anything wrong at all, or whether the site changed since he wrote the post, but I got on with my box stock IE7 and it worked great.  You have to figure this retailler didn’t just redo their whole site and fail to test it on the obvious combinations.  They might have, but the odds are better that the retailler tested it on a variety of common configurations, found it worked great and rolled it out only to find that certain much more rare combinations were not working.  Unfortunately, some of those combinations were in the hands of the Vocal Minority, so Steve wrote about it.

These sorts of things are hard decisions to make, but aiming for the lowest common denominator is rarely the winning strategy.  A fair number of great companies and products have been built by starting from products almost nobody could use because they were too far up the power curve and relying on the market to bring everyone up to capacity as the product grew.  Windows is a prime example of this (early versions were largely unusuable until we got Windows 3.1), but there are many others.

Figuring out the cutoff point is hard, but ulitmately you have to decide how many Loud Voices from the Edge you will ignore. 

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