What the client wants isn't always what they need

April 24, 2008

Guest Post by Monica O'Brien of Twenty Set

I've recently noticed a trend in software development that is along the lines of "If we build it they will come." This is a problem in any type of product development, but it seems to happen more often in software development because there are fewer entry barriers to start a technology-based company. The problem with "building things" is there are no limits to technology in terms of virtual products. If you can dream it, you can find a way to make it virtual. Which means there are a lot of people trying to make money off of products or enhancements that are missing one thing: a customer need.

What technology companies need most when developing a new product or enhancing an existing product is marketing research. Unfortunately, research is thought to be costly to be hired out, so many companies do an ad hoc version of marketing research which comes down to implementation managers asking customers what they want and reporting back to the company. This methodology is inherently flawed, however. The first rule of marketing research is you don't ask your customers what they want.

If I'd have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me "A faster horse." ~ Henry Ford

Customers are good at identifying solutions, not needs. In this example the user needs to get to places faster and comes up with a solution based on previous experience. But where's the innovation in something a customer has already experienced? Most customers don't understand technology the way a software developer would, and the solutions a customer presents cannot be new or different because they are solutions someone else has already created.

A company that uses solutions to determine what to build next will become an aggregator rather than an innovator; and while aggregators can be useful, they are certainly not original, cutting-edge, or exciting. Aggregation leads to other problems, namely complicated or unnecessary functionality. Which is why most software becomes too expensive, too slow, or too buggy. Some advice for companies developing software - if you want to be an industry leader, learn how to extracts needs vs. solutions. There is an entire science built around how to do this, and in my experience people without formal training in marketing research are absolutely horrible at understanding the voice of their customer. So maybe hire someone instead - the cost incurred will return tenfold in profits.