Useful Feedback, Misleading Feedback

Feedback can be one of the most powerful tools for paving the pathway to market entry. But can you really trust what your potential customers are saying about you?

It’s no secret that building and creating new products is a bit of a balancing act. It’s almost like the stars need to align to generate success; you have to be able to build a product, you have to ensure demand for the product, and you have to be able to reach your target market… and all of these things need to happen at the same time.

And let’s not forget the added challenge of the competitive landscape. Competition is good, of course, as it demonstrates strong market demand. But it also makes it more difficult for new entrants to be seen by the right people, at the right time. Creating products can be tiring. It can be costly. And it can be extremely risky. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could see into the future? If you could take a peek at what’s likely to work?

You can. And many entrepreneurs are doing it.

Introducing Market Feedback

At the end of the day, what you’re ultimately striving for is to build something that people want. And one of the best ways to do this is to actually ask them what that is.

Many small businesses are making the effort to collect feedback from audience pools that are statistically most likely to become future customers; the people that are most likely to use a proposed product. The idea is simple: if feedback suggests that no one particularly likes an idea, then it’s time to can the project. If feedback suggests that people will use the product, then it’s time to ramp up development and dive right in.

But can we really believe what people say? There’s a growing trend for product managers to disregard feedback completely, labelling it ‘misleading’. Steve Jobs was well known for taking this approach, and while some of his products failed miserably, he was also responsible for some of today’s most revolutionary and innovative technology.

Jobs believed that feedback results in developmental limitations. “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have asked for faster horses.” It’s a quote commonly attributed to Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford, and while it’s highly unlikely that Ford ever muttered these words, it does hammer in Jobs’ concerns about limitations.

And the truth is that feedback can be misleading, and misleading data can be devastating to in-development projects. It can lead you away from a potentially profitable idea, or even lead you down a completely counterproductive path.

In some cases, it’s simply easier for respondents to say ‘sure, I’d use your app’, rather than to tell the truth. People lie. We all lie sometimes. And there’s many reasons for this:

1. People lie to make you feel better

Research shows that the average person lies once or twice a day. And interestingly, the majority of the lies that we tell are intended to protect the feelings of others. And it’s not just adults who do this. Children have been found to tell little white lies to keep people happy, which suggests that lying to make others feel better is a natural human trait.

2. People lie to tell you what you want to hear

Malcolm Gladwell, journalist for The New Yorker, was a speaker at the TED2004 conference. In his speech, titled ‘Choice, Happiness, and Spaghetti Sauce’, he said:

“If I asked all of you, for example, in this room, what you want in a coffee, you know what you’d say? Every one of you would say, “I want a dark, rich, hearty roast.” It’s what people always say when you ask them. “What do you like?” “Dark, rich, hearty roast!” What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast? Somewhere between 25 – 27% of you. Most of you like milky, weak coffee. But you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want that “I want a milky, weak coffee.”

3. People lie to make themselves appear better

Sometimes, people lie so that they’re looked upon more favourably. Research suggests that two thirds of us regularly lie about our weight, taking around 5lbs off the number on the scale. It has also been suggested that almost half of all men concoct fake facts about themselves and fabricate aspects of their lives when sharing details online.

4. People lie because of respondent fatigue

It’s important to remember that you won’t be the first person trying to gather this sort of feedback, and you won’t be the last. And some respondents are getting bored of participating. Respondent fatigue can cause the authenticity of the feedback to deteriorate through an increase in ‘don’t know’ responses and ‘straight-line’ answers.

Minimizing Misleading Feedback

Feedback can be misleading, sure. But it can also be incredibly valuable if it’s authentic and genuine. So how can you improve the quality of your feedback data?

1. Improved Sampling

Naturally, many want to gather feedback from as many sources as possible to generate the most accurate results. But the truth is that larger pools representing a wide audience may not be as beneficial as smaller pools of higher quality participants. Opening up feedback to complementary demographics can come at the later stages; for an initial insight into whether or not your product has a place in the market, keeping your sample limited to a niche target audience can provide more actionable results.

2. Showing, Not Telling

As we’ve discussed, it’s often said that Steve Jobs didn’t listen to his customers. But this isn’t entirely true. It’s not that he didn’t listen; it’s more that he understood the limitations of theory. He’s famously quoted as saying “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page”. So don’t tell people what they might be interested in… show them. Build mockups of your product to really help respondents connect with it.

3. Tune in

As we can clearly see from Malcom Gladwell’s 2004 TED talk, people have a habit of verbally communicating different things to what they’re thinking. So consider whether asking the market for feedback is really the right approach. Perhaps it’s better to gather feedback not from surveys or questionnaires, but organically through tapping into online discussions. Known as ‘social listening’, this is a technique that collects real time conversations from social channels, and analyses them to derive meaningful insights.

4. Ask for Help

You may still wish to send off surveys and questionnaires. And that’s OK. But it’s always better to ask for help when generating the questions. Why? Because despite best intentions, the closer you are to your product, the more biased your questions will be. For example, it may be natural for an app developer to ask ‘how often are you frustrated with your current app?’ which forces respondents into providing negative answers. Instead, we must be asking ‘what do you think of your current app?’.

Feedback… Or Not?

One of the most valuable things that you can do prior to entering a new market is to determine that there’s a place for you there. And the best way to do that is by analysing feedback from the people that matter most: your future customers. It’s a great start, because it gives you insight into who may buy your product, and why. But it’s vital to take into account the fact that some feedback can be misleading. Use it, learn from it, and grow from it, but don’t rely on it as the foundation of your business.

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Richard Dancsi

Founder & Techie

Startup founder and management consultant with over 15 years experience in building technology teams, products and companies.