Listen to Your Users, Not the Hype

It’s so easy to get caught up in the hype. If you’re a new company in a new industry in a new medium, the hype often becomes your warrant, your justification for being. It might behoove you, though, to stop and think. Is a reliance on hype good for the user?

The answer can be yes and no. Let’s explore why.

First, we’ll look at the yes. History is riddled with successful products that no one knew they needed at the time. Hype is helpful in that it can get things built before the true need is felt. Wonderful changes in technology and consumer products can be realized and integrated into our lives before we even know we were missing them.

We’ve seen hype revolutionize the Internet as thousands of companies tried out various business models and online products. We typically got to use most of the new products for free or very little. Now, some of these same companies are falling out of the sky. The Rosen Consulting Group expects 80 percent of Bay Area Web firms to fail by the end of the year. How many of these would not have existed at all without some reliance on the hype generated by their competitors, online research firms, venture capitalists, and others in the industry? But while these companies were operating, users were having a field day, using and receiving services they never expected to have.

One example is Mortgage.com. Its funding and IPO gained much from a Forrester Research report stating that online mortgages, as a percentage of the total market, would grow exponentially from 1998 to 2003. Whether this will prove true remains to be seen, but some users enjoyed a convenient mortgage-application process while Mortgage.com was still afloat.

The user benefits to some extent from hype in that he or she is allowed access to goods and services that otherwise might not exist.

Still, there is a dark side. Users are not well served by hype-driven companies with a short-term viewpoint. These companies typically do not put as much emphasis on customer service as they do on product serving. Users are also poorly served when companies follow the hype away from the users’ needs. When companies misjudge their users through arrogance or ignorance, the services they provide may not solve users’ problems or may create more problems.

Companies with a short-term view often use hype as the be-all, end-all justification of their existence. If they’re not there for the user, they need something else to keep them going. Hype serves as the rainbow leading to the purported pot of gold, and the user becomes secondary to the goal. In the absence of a real market need or user demand, these companies survive on pure hype, creating new products and press releases until the venture capital is gone.

When shown research undermining his company’s business model, one eHealth executive commented that the research “would have been critical” when the company was developing its consumer site. As an astute colleague of mine pointed out, eHealth could have done such research itself. The people there had followed the press releases and industry talk about how great the market was going to be instead of asking users what they needed. Do not be misled by the hype and forget to find out what the users really feel; taking the time to research what users want could well end up critical to your long-term survival.

When faced with hype, the best course is to ask users what they think. Do the market research, launch the pilot site, monitor customer service feedback, do user testing. It is easy for a research firm to say that X market will be Y dollars in Z years because it doesn’t have to buy the products. Users do. Make sure you filter out the hype so you can hear your users.

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