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Building the Customer-Informed Product

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Customers should not lead your product development. Product managers that function by taking every feature request from the customer, turning them into product requirements, and working to deliver that feature are going to end up building a product that is disjointed and has no strength of vision. They’ll likely have very satisfied customers, but little growth and ability to scale. Instead of building what the market wants, they’re building what specific customers want.

We see this pattern in companies that build based on feature voting, and in companies that don’t have a strong opinion about what needs to be built. They act almost as a custom development shop, with some common components and maybe a common codebase, but with little feature usage overlap across customers.

Strong products are guided by strong visions, and the execution of that vision is the primary focus of product development.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to your customers. But your product roadmap should be customer-informed, not customer-led.

To understand the difference, imagine a seafood restaurant. They have customers come in periodically that don’t eat fish, so those customers ask for different food items. Some ask for salads. There’s some requests for steak. One weirdo wants a tofu burger topped with chocolate ice cream.

All these customers are willing to pay for their requested items, and often they’re willing to pay a lot more than you’d expect.

If the restaurant blindly implements every requested dish, they’ll lose their identity as a restaurant. They’re no longer a seafood restaurant, they’re an anything goes café that happens to serve a lot of fish. But their customers are telling them something important. They’re telling them they have needs that aren’t being met by the restaurant, and for whatever reason, they like the restaurant enough to want them to fill those needs, instead of just going to another restaurant.

What a reasonable restaurant would do is look at all these requests and see what adjustments they could make, for all customers, to fulfill the needs of these customers. They might decide to add a vegetarian option or two in the form of a salad or a pasta dish. If most of their requests were for various steak dishes, they may pick a single steak to offer on the menu.

This is being customer-informed. They’re letting the customers as a group influence the menu, but they’re not letting any one customer dictate the menu.

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