Listening to users is bad…

When it comes to building social sites listening to users is a bad idea.    The ones that want something the most are usually fringe users who want something very specific.    For instance on my site there are 900,000 dailly users  of which 2,000 use the forums.    Of those 2000 users who use the forums less than 50% are actually single and even fewer are actively looking for someone.

Over 90% of suggestions for changes to the site come from this group of users,  but these users represent less than 1/450 users on the site.    Basically if there are good ideas out there that users are suggesting its ones that are standard features on other dating sites.    Users do not suggest game changing features,  in fact users are usually against them.     Just look at facebook’s  news feed,   or  eharmony,   or match.com  when it first launched etc etc.    To create something game changing  you have to be like apple,   you just build interesting stuff and test it on users until you find something that works and then you release it to everyone.

I think the best example of a company doing that kind of stuff online today is Google,   it acts like a cult,  all the employees believe in google and believe they can do anything  so they try everything.   At google if anything goes wrong they will always put you in contact with the right person, and they build products that are dead simple and easy to use.

On the other hand you have companies like yahoo  that are completely disfunctional,   last year they owed me a few hundred thousand $.   It took months and months of being passed along to different people who couldn’t make a decision  or want to be responsible for anything until i finally got paid. 

At google everyone acts as one,   at yahoo it seems everyone acts for themselves.   I have always followed a google like model since the very start.    Name me a single  hugely successful internet company that is driven and built by user suggestions.   I can’t think of a single one,   but I can think of a lot of sites/companies that have been created based on ones persons vision/execution.

55 Responses to “Listening to users is bad…”

  1. Daniel Gibbons Says:

    In some ways iStockPhoto was built by its users, albeit with very strong management by the team. But their incentive to participate was in part to make money from selling their work, so they were more likely to make suggestions that would in turn make the business more money.

    Obviously iStock isn’t on the scale of Google, but they did sell for $50 million to Getty, and last year posted revenues of over $70 million.

    On the flip side, eBay has really suffered by making many of their top sellers feel like the company is acting against them rather than for them. So I guess it’s really marketplace models that need to be most proactive about soliciting feedback from their audience of sellers.

    But yes, it can be dangerous to ask users which features to launch, because often their suggestions simply aren’t viable, and they become very vocal when they perceive their suggestions have been ignored.

  2. Markus Says:

    I agree about istock…. I think in Ebay’s case they started being more focused on making money instead of building a great product. If you start changing things to make more money instead of making it useful you will always run into trouble.

  3. drumat5280 Says:

    Good post, I think you wrote a post like this a few years back. I like letting Google Optimizer make the decisions.

  4. Kebie Says:

    Haha “needs to be like apple”. Apple has the best aesthetic and polish in the business, that is their game changer, and that is what you don’t have at all, yet you look up to them strangely. Yahoo! actually creates or buys up really great working software and polishes a lot of their software, Google doesn’t.

    I don’t get why you are so anti-user in some respects. I have even used your website, me and my friends agree it looks like and feels like a piece of crap, but it has all the fish so we tried it. It is not even adding “game changing features” that sometimes people need to look at, it is just adding polish to ease the user experience and make it more enjoyable. Something you don’t seem to want to spend the money on. The website is bottom of the barrel in terms of user experience and look and feel. I don’t think the quality of datable people has purely to do with your website being free it has a lot to do with just the quality of it.

    Facebook, Myspace, and Nexopia are all free but all have a different quality to their community on a whole.

    Have you even tried to listen to your users? have you ever ran any large surveys or focus groups. I don’t truly believe in design by community I actually hate it, but there needs to be some design and continual looking and improvement. I think it is pretty easy for someone to make a non game changing improvement like “hey maybe we should have thumbnails that are not all out of proportion and look retarded.”

  5. Jeremy Abrams Says:

    Google tries absolutely everything it can think of and then weeds out the failures and improves upon the successes. Only a company as massive as Google could afford such extensive experiments. I would not be surprised if (for a smaller company) its method is more costly than listening to the users. However, if the users provide unhelpful or misleading information ,like you suggest, then–yes–Google’s method is probably best. It allows the company the freedom to experiment while receiving user feedback in the form of popularity.

    If it were possible for you to only get user feedback from single users who have no dating memberships elsewhere then that may be the route to take because their suggestions will be relevant (because they are single) and potentially original (because their image of the perfect dating network has not yet been corrupted by other sites like match.com, chemistry.com, et cetera..).

    However, it is also important to note that users are not (generally speaking) masters of innovation (hence why they are network users not network builders), so the game changing ideas that you are looking for may still have to be homegrown.

  6. Ted Rheingold Says:

    Great point about not listening to users. I call who you speak of the vocal minority and for the first six months I didn’t realize what a siren’s song it was they sang!

  7. Zach Says:

    I also find that the unfortunate problem is a lot of people would rather deal with something thats broken or could be better than learn it a new way.

  8. Zach Says:

    I think that most people don’t want to learn something a new way and never appreciate it websites change.

  9. Jilles Says:

    For (a little bit) more on this topic, see:

    http://www.jilles.net/perma/2008/11/09/do-not-listen-to-your-customers/

  10. Y8 Says:

    I agree about istock….

  11. Y3 Says:

    I also find that the unfortunate problem is a lot of people would rather deal with something thats broken or could be better than learn it a new way. ??

  12. Oman Says:

    but its often the critial users who are the trend makers

  13. Jack Says:

    wikipedia? Whilst Facebook and Digg aren’t designed by the users, the management pretty soon change stuff if the more luddite users don’t like it.

  14. Neil Says:

    Any online company of a decent size these days incorporates user feedback into their product development efforts. Of course Google, Yahoo, etc. know that blindly chasing each complaint or suggestion is a fool’s errand. What they and many high-performing smaller companies do is follow user experience methodologies that don’t listen to what users say, but watch what the do (http://bit.ly/DIQH). Properly structured, lightweight usability studies that are part of the development process (this is important – don’t think of usability as a validation) will actually decrease development time (less time spent wondering what to build) and decrease maintenance (less time spent reworking features built for edge cases).

    Recruit users that are representative of the overall mix. Most importantly, however, is that you don’t just implement what users say they want. You take the feedback, go back and digest it a bit and think how it matches with whatever product vision you have. Users aren’t product designers, and they usually have a narrow complaint – your job is to translate that into a feature that the rest of the users can use. Sometimes, there is a flash of brilliance, but mostly there are incremental improvements – important, but stuff that can easily lead us astray.

  15.   ¿Debes escuchar a tus clientes? by Tecnorantes Says:

    [...] leyendo este articulo de Markus Frind de Plentyoffish, e investigando un poco he encontrado una tendencia que aconseja justo lo contrario y que al menos [...]

  16. controversial1 Says:

    I am not surprised to see that you think “listening to your users is bad”. From most of what I have read from you, you are the only one that knows what is good for Plentyoffish.

    I would respect what you write more if you were in fact a large company. You keep stating that you are the one, the sole entity within Plentyoffish while Google employs somewhere around 17,000 people. Google “acts like a cult” and you have followed a “google-like model from the start.”

    At Google, everyone acts like one…at Plentyoffish there is only one…and don’t you forget it! Right? Cult…I’m sure

  17. Rex Dixon Says:

    While I agree that you can’t listen to every users complaint about your site/company, you do have to do as @Neil above stated – take it all in and digest for overall improvement of your product.

    One thing that you must not do is totally ignore the user base. That doesn’t mean you have to bend over and do everything your users tell you to do. Doing that would be obviously foolish, but listening to other thoughts is an integral part to succeeding as a business.

  18. Thomas Says:

    Great post! I was just speaking with a friend the other day about how survey data is so overrated. I think your example of social site features is a perfect one.

  19. mark Says:

    The social site has great value and intent. However, I was one of the unlucky ones that was deleted without warning or reasons. My repeated efforts to discover why were/ are ignored. Whether you operate a fee based or not web site simple decent courtesy should require someone within the organization to at least respond to a request. I assume I was deleted after an ex girlfriends friend saw me on the site and threatened to turn me in. For what I do not know- but I was deleted and cannot get reconnected. My attempts to contact anyone have been ignored. I salute your success in the business world and wish you much more but certainly I am dismayed that I was deleted without warning all due to a friend of an ex girlfriend. Sir, I appeal to you to provide me the means to re establish myself.

  20. dave Says:

    There are some seriously psycho people here. The bottom line is Marcus is right. Why? Who the hell else single handedly runs a site of that size and makes the money that he has been CONSISTENTLY making? No one. I always laugh at people who critize a sites aesthetic or make some other shallow comment. It’s a business people! If its making money they must be doing something right.

  21. PCD Says:

    I liked this post mostly because it goes against the overwhelming majority of posts/articles out there that preach a “only listen to your users” philosophy.

    I work for a small software company that has become paralyzed by it’s tendency to “listen to users”. By entertaining EVERY request and almost never saying “no” to a new feature request, the software has become shaky, confusing, and practically untestable (considering the myriad of configuration possibilities now available thanks to all the optional features we’ve added).

    That being said, the reason this company has been around 18+ years (which is a feat in the start from scratch software biz world) is it’s willingness to give clients what they want. Had they ignored these requests, many of the our clients would have left us but they stuck around because of our ability to provide new features no other provider would offer.

    The interesting thing I’ve found is that even though our clients pay a HEAVY price in the end by having a less than stable product, they 1.) are often shortsighted and happy enough with new features to temporarily forget about the larger issues and 2.) have gotten sold on a sticky software product due to our promises of adding whatever feature they want and now can’t just up and change solutions. It’s not pretty and I don’t agree with doing business that way, but it’s kept this company in business and profitable for almost 20 years so take it for what it’s worth.

    In the end, I think (like almost everything else) balance is key. Simple, but incredibly difficult.

  22. soccerMom Says:

    It’s a shame that Plenty of Fish is not a paid site.

    If it were, then at least I could have the satisfction of no longer paying for it following my account’s random removal. No cause, no explanation, no response to my multiple inquiries, no customer service, no common courtesy.

    By ignoring the hundreds of hours people like me invested into our fish social networks, you leave yourself exposed to competition. And more power to them.

  23. kimbo Says:

    Markus – just be yourself. Don’t emulate other companies. Complain as much as you want about Yahoo, but it’s founder is a billionaire. You’re not. At the end of the day…isn’t that all that matters? Or is it more important to listen to users? Wait… uhm.

  24. Weekly Reading 11/22 « The Blog of Alex J. Mann Says:

    [...] Listening to users is bad… “At google everyone acts as one, at yahoo it seems everyone acts for themselves. I have always followed a google like model since the very start. Name me a single hugely successful internet company that is driven and built by user suggestions. I can’t think of a single one, but I can think of a lot of sites/companies that have been created based on ones persons vision/execution.” [...]

  25. Dean Says:

    Using the same methods as the most successful businesses/people will probably brin the same outcome. That’s not to say that you should be unoriginal or not to improve on others methods. Listening to users can not be bad, letting the users run the site usually is… You will have to make your own informed decision to filter the bad ideas and Think about it from the users point of view and perhaps have a poll at the bottom of new features is this feature useful/unnecessary.(that’s one quick idea) It isn’ a fool proof plan as some may not use the poll, but again it will help you make an informed decision.

    I agree with what you say about being like apple and testing new features/ideas-otherwise how will you ever know? Though its not always necessary to do so on a smaller scale. Either way you have to give it a fair trial time.
    As for users not suggesting anything game changing…. i did the other day-but have not had a response yet. I understand the importance of your time

  26. Brad Touesnard Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. 37 Signals is another example of a successful company who does not listen to their users.

  27. Aaron Says:

    Listening to user feedback is a good thing because it helps you spot problems on your website and see where there is user dissatisfaction. However, expecting users to innovate for you is not going to happen. In that sense I agree, users do not come up with innovative ideas because it’s not their job. That part is left for you.

  28. Dean Says:

    To my knowledge I’m sure he hasn’t but whats to say MARKUS didn’t use a dating site! (for example.) Or suggest something to another site/business before he was successful…How can people hold such limiting foolish beliefs. People can have great ideas but have no confidence to put their ideas into practice. People can procrastinate and be hugely innovative and not produce any results. They can firmly believe that they cant become successful because its for a ‘selective few achievers’..and never even try!!! OR EVEN WORSE THEY ARE ALL OF THE ABOVE!
    What if markus was one of these types of personalty’s-then he would never have attempted plentyofffish, at least not to its full potential…. he would have prob been like many of the other free dating sites, or not even tried at all! Would that mean that his ideas would be no good as a user???
    -FRUSTRATION-
    HOW MANY MILLIONAIRES/HIGH ACHIEVERS ECT WERE IN A CRAP JOB WHEN THEY DECIDED TO TAKE CONTROL OF THEIR LIFE-AND THEN WE DECIDE THAT WHAT THEY SAY AND THE IDEAS THEY HAVE ARE GREAT?!!

    ANSWER=ALOT (Do some research)

  29. Dean Says:

    Basically if there are good ideas out there that users are suggesting its ones that are standard features on other dating sites. Users do not suggest game changing features, in fact users are usually against them

    Whats wrong with suggestions from other dating sites (unless their not good ideas)
    It would help if people had some insentive to give you ideas-other than to fill your pocket… if i want something thats not on your site i’ll find it elsewhere. id give you ideas all day long but it wouldnt help me fiancialy the way it would you, would it…? And as long as your happy to have other people suggesting things for YOUR site and to try them-id dont see any problem.
    Users are usually against them? Im not the expireanced one but…. how do you know that??-unless you have tried or if there bad ideas. (although having said that, people dont generally like change, they may need to get used to it)
    Dont take anything i say negativly. If i wanted to be negative (meaning rude/offensive) then it would be REALLY obvious. It can be difficult to know how to take something that is wrtten thats where animations come in handy! I just wont bow down like many people do (because i believe anyone has the potential if they are driven enough)- I have respect for anyone that has been successful if they have done it moraly, and if they are helping others without wanting something back from them thats even better…. You will just get my honest oppinion.

  30. Dean Says:

    SORRY-ONE LAST THING (edit-two things)
    If listening to users is bad-why are you asking for help on here?(they are technically users) And how many of them do you think have tried a dating site.
    Generalizing is ‘usually’ bad. For example women cant drive, men don’t listen, men are cheats, women cant do D.I.Y. It only takes one user to prove you wrong-but will you allow that? Are you willing to find out???
    Also why are you asking questions here-I’m sure you could easily find the technical help from people who are the best or most knowledgeable in what ever you want to know

  31. Mariana Says:

    Well, the big problem is not when you listen to the users, it’s when you do not listen to them, at all.

    Because one person with a complaint, represents many more users that are too lazy, don’t have the confidence to say anything… or as we can correctly surmise in your case, just think the management do not care about their opinions. Any manager worth his salt knows that.

    The reason such a small percentage of the users use the forums, is because a lot of them lack the computer skills to even know they are there. There is not a lot of mention of them, aside from the link to them. These are the same people who do not succeed, and after a few weeks, leave the site in disgust, because they do not have the feeling of community that a forum provides. One gets the idea that the forums exist as the red headed step child of the site, when they are a great source of information, humor and an insight into the opposite sex and how they think.

    And it’s quite sad, because they profile review forums might have helped their incredibly lackluster attempt at a profile, or taking the time to read what a woman would like to see in a first contact, just might have increased their chances of getting someone to respond to a first contact that just says “hi sexy.”

    Isn’t the idea to increase traffic to raise revenue through advertising? And the forums do generate a lot of traffic that stays on the site, rather than coming and leaving quickly when they see there is no mail.

    If you want to make more money, you would add Amazon ads linked through the forums. The people in the forums, are for the most part, as in any forum, a much brighter and more literate bunch.

    Know your customers, instead of disdaining them.

  32. ChrisBaxter Says:

    You keep believing that and see what happens to your company. Companies that don’t listen to their customers go under.

    Your forum users probably are responsible for a large part of your daily site hits. They are the ones advertisers like.

    Ignore your customers and soon you’ll have none to ignore.

    I was once a customer of yours. That is until you changed you site from 100% free to semi-free and ignored your users request not to.

  33. Jim Says:

    I think it is interesting that you begin this article with “When it comes to building social sites listening to users is a bad idea.” and then go on to promote Google as some sort of ideal. When did Google become a social networking site?

    And, yes, you are right that Google doesn’t depend on feedback from their users to determine features. But you are also wrong. Google tracks every single thing every one of it’s users does or tries to do and they aggregate that data and dig into it over and over again. In effect, the user’s activities ARE their input. What has made Google successful is being able to predict the user’s wants/needs before the user even knows they have them. THAT is how Google changed the game.

    How much of that is going on over at PlentyofFish? I mean, when a user clicks a link labeled “My Matches” pretty much anyone should be able to predict that a page full of users that have already indicated they have no interest in you, blocked you or have profile data that clashes with your’s aren’t “matches”. Yet apparently, the paradigm used at PoF is “throw a bunch of profiles at them and see what sticks… even if they’ve seen those same profiles the last 600 times they tried it.”.

    You see Google as the great agent of change yet fail to change yourself to follow their example.

  34. Rhonda Says:

    “You keep believing that and see what happens to your company. Companies that don’t listen to their customers go under.

    Your forum users probably are responsible for a large part of your daily site hits. They are the ones advertisers like.”

    I have to say I agree with ChrisBaxter’s opinion.

    I’ve seen Plenty of Fish go from a relatively small website, to a large website and now the owner is flournding to maintain and even attract more business by half thought out business ideas.

    Not to worry, it doesn’t cost the site owner much in terms of what he’s already earning from the site, the real people that are paying are the ones that don’t realize that many of the implementations are simply a cash grab for the site owner.

    For all of his big hearted ideals, it’s his pocketbook that’s speaking to him now, and in his ongoing campaign to be a dating site mogul, he’s lost the respect of the intelligent users of that site.

    I see this as step one on the decline of his site; hopefully he’s done some investing for a rainy day.

  35. Max Says:

    Good remark about thumbnails. Markus, care to consider FaceJugle face crop?

  36. Dean Says:

    I think in Ebay’s case they started being more focused on making money instead of building a great product. If you start changing things to make more money instead of making it useful you will always run into trouble.

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  38. Paul Says:

    Of course any business has to listen to their customers. It doesn’t mean to act on all those changes. Customer feedback can expose potential weaknesses in your business and is typically a symptom of a bigger issue.

    More importantly, the aggregated feedback from all your tons of users might give you the next big idea that they want but just don’t know it yet.

  39. links for 2008-11-20 | Tomas Kohl Says:

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  40. Erica Says:

    I think saying that listening to users is a really strange absolute. Does that mean never? What if one of their ideas is simple, easy to implement and fixes an obvious problem that your dev or design folks missed? Would fixing it increase ad revenue? Maybe not. But why is that always the bottom line?

    Part of the reason Google puts out such great products is because the developers and designers ARE users. They are part of this cult because they love the stuff they build, and they use the stuff they build.

    This may seem incredibly Pollyanna of me, but I have been trying to figure out why not listening to your users as a rule bothers me so much. I think what I figured out is that it comes across as soulless. We all know the primary goal of a business is to make money. Lots of it. But I would like to believe that people want to make business by filling a niche, and making people’s lives a little better, brighter or easier. By actively saying you don’t want the input of the people who use your service, it puts it out there that it’s all about the money. That kind of disillusionment (especially in a dating site!) is going to turn people off. You will never create the “cult” that you may need, if the people who work for you feel you are soulless.

  41. POF messages deleted Says:

    Wha’ happened? The site is not explaining it to me. The is no REAL contact email there. I didn’t do any of the things that the site says would cause emails to be deleted. I want my emails back. Please. I promised people I would contact them after the holidays.

    Markus?

  42. pete Says:

    “Name me a single hugely successful internet company that is driven and built by user suggestions.”

    you’re right, probably none. But there’s a difference between being driven and built by them and ignoring them totally. You might want to consider some, that doesn’t mean you’ll blindly adopt them all but you don’t want to reject them all out of hand. It’s not that apple or google doesn’t listen to, consider and sometimes adopt customer feedback, they do. But they make the final decision and don’t pretend to outsource those decisions.

    For example if your new free competitor decides to have thumbnails that don’t look as strange, pixelated and weirdly cropped as yours, that could significantly hurt your revenue. Not immediately but over time if they could grow to have a large user base, that could be a big game changer.

    It will be worse if they have a usability expert and make their site more easy to use and navigate.

    If your site is only 20-30% bigger but the user experience is 60-70% worse, many might chose to vote for user experience especially the photo thumbnail quality.

    It hasn’t been that important for you in the past because most of your competition is paid and most people on the net like free, and enough of them are willing to put up with it for now.

    But just as you out innovated your paid competitors because they got complacent and convinced that their judgement was nearly always right, they might do the same to you with the same results.

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  44. Kyle Says:

    Markus you seem to contradict yourself here.

    You talk about listening to users suggestions as if they have very little credibility then you go one to state that Google creates game changing stuff and its a model that you follow.

    The Google culture is to provide the best user experience. Cant do that without engaging feedback from customers. That bottom up way of thinking is in fact the primary reason for Googles success.

    Ive participated in several Google Beta’s and they’ve asked for feedback each time.

  45. Dick Says:

    Markus Says:
    “November 19, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    I agree about istock…. I think in Ebay’s case they started being more focused on making money instead of building a great product. If you start changing things to make more money instead of making it useful you will always run into trouble.”

    So now someone claiming to provide a very lucrative service that can see that pay dating sites are loosing money wants to charge his own daters; however, those that tell him paying won’t work are only those that use the forums.

    Of course we know paying money on this site won’t make a bit of difference as the other sites are loosing business. Marcus made money and as everyone knows the greedy just become greedier.

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  48. Chris P. Says:

    Some great points Markus…some companies cater too much to user demands, i too am totally against this.

    Chris

  49. John Homes Says:

    I am glad you’ve had such a good response when it came to contacting Google. I have not needed to do so as of yet, but I have read some horror stories online. I guess these people just don’t know the proper method to contact an actual person who works there.

    But I agree, the people who take the time to make a suggestion on sites are usually the complainers anyway.

  50. Shawn Sears Says:

    I think users input is very important

  51. Friv Says:

    The Google culture is to provide the best user experience. Cant do that without engaging feedback from customers.

  52. games reviews Says:

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  53. friv Says:

    @I think users input is very important. Yes, I also think.

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