The success of every new software product is dependent on whether customers like the new features or not. Thus, I think it makes sense to listen to customers as early as possible.

You might have heard the news that some sites that were posting rumors about Windows 8 features were shut down. It appears to be unclear who is behind this, but it is obvious that Redmond does not really like it when possible Windows 8 features are discussed in public at this time. I believe that this strategy is wrong, and in this post I explain why.

listening

In my opinion, these rumors are very important. They trigger discussion on the web, and I believe that this helps Microsoft find out what Windows customers really want. This is one of the reasons why I started the Windows 8 poll with its somewhat surprising outcome.

Of course, the downside is that wrong expectations will turn into disappointment if the rumors turn out to be hoaxes or if features have to be axed because of time constraints. The Vista marketing debacle was partly caused by these dashed hopes. However, Microsoft survived, and those discussions after the public release of Vista led to Windows 7, which obviously is a big success.

I think Apple-like behavior that keeps simple new features a state secret until the final product is released is not only ridiculous but is also not helpful in creating a software product for the masses. A smart software company makes use of the new many-to-many communication feature of the web to create a software product that the masses want.

One of the most popular sentences in product manager blogs is "We listen to our customers." I wonder how this is possible if you keep features a secret until the first beta is released to the public. At this stage, it is already too late to "listen to customers." I think that asking a few CIOs of big organizations and "partners" what kind of features they would like to have in a future product release, or how they like an early alpha version, is not listening to customers. It is listening to a few experts and nothing more.

This kind of "listening" was appropriate in a world without many-to-many communication. Rumors and cancelled features were one reason for the Vista debacle, but the main reason was that many just wanted a different kind of product (not me). How could this be possible, after a development period of more than five years, if Microsoft listened to customers? Did all those customers lie? Or didn't they know what they wanted? Or did Microsoft just listen to the wrong customers? The truth is that only a handful of software engineers guessed what kind of features people wanted in Vista, and they simply guessed wrong.

If you have very "good guessers" (like Apple, at the moment), this can work quite well for a while. However, guessing always involves luck, and every run of luck ends sooner or later. And what happens if the good guesser has to retire (Steve Jobs) or leaves the company for a higher purpose (Bill Gates)?

Vista's long beta phase was not really helpful either. By nature of a beta product, only minor changes can be made. However, those minor changes are sometimes not enough to create a successful product. Listening to customers nowadays means to extensively monitor the discussion on the web. I believe that it is necessary to discuss new Windows features openly on the web long before the first line of code is written.

Companies may think that this open discussion poses a risk that competitors will get ideas for their products, but this risk has to be accepted. In the end, the company who has the best listeners will prevail. But if you hide in the back or even hunt down journalists who dare to do their job (like the Cupertino paranoiacs), you only demonstrate that you are not really interested in listening to customers. Not listening to what people want has become dangerous not only for software companies but also for governments who underestimated the new power of many-to-many communication on the web.

9 Comments
  1. DucatiGuy 11 years ago

    I think you're making a basic mistake by implying that Microsoft cares about the customer experience.

    People don't buy Windows because they want to, they buy Windows because they have to - try and buy a new PC without it and you'll see what I mean.

    Now that Android is starting to trickle onto laptops we're going to have some choice between a system that's driven by user feedback and a system that's driven by the Microsoft share price. It will be interesting to see the outcome!

  2. DucatiGuy, of course Microsoft cares about customer experience as any other company. Good customer experience means higher revenue. I wonder how you came to such a strange view that a company who doesn't care about customer experience can survive.

    You are right, people have to buy Windows because there are no real other choices. This is the only reason why most PCs are shipped with Windows. And the reason for this is that Microsoft was just so much better than the competition. PC manufacturers just give the people what they want.

    However, I agree that Android is the first serious rival for Windows. But it is not because Android is any more user feedback driven than Windows. Google just has some good guessers.

  3. DucatiGuy 11 years ago

    You are entitled to your point of view, but mine differs. As a software developer I watch my users struggle with Windows every day, and it's not a pretty sight.

    I've also recently migrated my personal PC from one running XP to one running Windows 7. It took over a week to settle into the new environment because I had to install and reconfigure every tool I use: this is a good user experience? Most users upgrade or move PCs every couple of years, why isn't there a better migration tool?

    This is the company that required the user to click the Start button to stop the PC for more than 10 years. How intuitive could that be?

    And, I give you the Scheduled Tasks window in Win 7. I defy any one to find their way around that intuitively.

    In comparison, the user experience on (say) Android is far more positive. Our local plumber, who has been frightened by Windows for years, got up to speed on his Android in a couple of hours and has been exercising all its capabilities quite fearlessly ever since.

    One reason for the differences in our opinions could be the definition of the term 'customer'. Microsoft clearly sees their 'customer' as the decision-maker in medium to large corporates (including the PC manufacturers). They have been supremely successful in instilling the notion in these customers that Nobody Got Fired for Buying Microsoft.

    I could go on, but I want this to be a discussion, not an argument!

  4. I think you are confusing two distinct things here. The question whether Microsoft cares about customer experience and the question if customer experience is really how it should or could be. Customer experience with Vista obviously was very bad and Microsoft suffered a lot. But customer satisfaction of Windows 7 is very high. As I outlined in the article, only the feedback they received after the Vista release made Windows 7 possible. Unfortunately, with Windows 8 Microsoft is back to their old habit of guessing what customers want.

    As for Android, I doubt that customer experience is really better here. I am using Android only for couple of months and had already to fight with a few ugly bugs that cost me a lot of time. If you skim over the user forums you will see that there are quite a few frustrated Android customers out there. What makes Android a serious rival to Windows is that it is optimized for touch and for cloud services. But rest assured that users will have to deal with the same problems as with Windows.

  5. Thom 11 years ago

    Nice article. I agree with you whole-heartedly.
    One reason Microsoft have been making good guesses lately is due to their telematics date from the Customer Experience Improvement Programs (CEIP). It seemed that any change Microsoft touted for Office 2010 or IE9 was backed by data received from real customers.
    The thing that worries me is that they are relying on data rather than peoples opinions.
    The only reasons I can see for not showing early progress is because a) it may change/get removed (Vista) or b) they want a headstart before their competition copies them (WP7).

  6. Thom, thanks. You are right about a) and b). I think a) wouldn't be a problem, if Microsoft makes it clear that certain features are only proposals. This method works fine for Open Source communities. b) is a problem, but I doubt that it is a serious one for Windows. I mean how many people change a ecosystem just because a certain feature is available a few months earlier for another OS? But how many moved to OS X because the whole web agreed that Vista was a failure? What counts now is the opinion that the cloud creates. Everything else is unimportant.

  7. Stefan 11 years ago

    Just a matter of company culture, Microsoft never developed the openess and the will for transparency which is required for listening to end-users.

    Vista was a good example, we learned that sales and marketing is in charge at Microsoft. They kept repeating that Vista is a good product until the last costumer complained. They could predict that from any neutral feedback but they managed to ignore that entirely or more likely they tend to ignore neutral feedback.

    And yes: end-users are not their customers. End-users buy computers not windows, it just pre-installed there. Support is done by computer-vendors. Microsoft supports their partners, companies and great organisation with IT-staff which is trained to think the Microsoft way. Since these guys would have the ressources to switch to other OS, this is the place where Microsoft has to fullfill actual costumer needs or at least make good marketing (which they do).

    I seriously doubt that they ask unix/linux-admins for their opinion or use other OS (to learn about their own weaknesses).

    Even if they understand today what they did wrong: They have to stick with their sick procotocolls (CIFS) for compatibility.

  8. Stefan, just one question. Why do you think is Windows pre-installed on most PCs?

  9. Stefan 11 years ago

    Are you suggesting that Windows is pre-installed on most PCs because its the best operating system?

    That assumption would be true if
    - there is really a choice for end-users (not only for computer professionals)
    - all operating system would look and behave the same way (no extra training needed to understand the differences)
    - all operating system could run the same application AND are 100% compatible (try to use Webdav or mounting ext3/ext4/zfs on Windows or .net on other plattforms)
    - hardware-drivers are available on all plattforms (well that doesn't work even trough the windows-Versions)

    When this day comes (hint: it never will) and the majority is still using Windows - that question is solved, but also irrelevant at this point.

    Just one question at the end: Why does all people have appendixes? Because its the best for them?

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