December 8th, 2011

The importance of listening to expert users

First published on Memeburn.

It has always been the case that customers can end up knowing more about a business than its owners.

In the world of modern web based businesses with vast user bases however, it is so much more prevalent and significant that it should form an integral part of business strategy. Smart web businesses do this, as do smart ‘offline’ businesses with the help of their web presences.

This user expertise can take many forms, and can be leveraged in many ways, three of which I will explore in this article — APIs, product expertise and crowdsourcing.

Steve Jobs loves his users

APIs

If your web business is essentially a service-based one on some software (like Google, Facebook orTwitter for example) then opening up your API (Application Programming Interface) to external developers is one way to learn from people who might know more about your service than you do. An API essentially enables developers outside of your company to build bits of software that interface and integrate with your service.

A great example is Twitter: The microblogging site could have decided not to open up an API, and allow users to only interact with Twitter through the website, or through its own mobile and desktop apps. Instead it allowed developers to get creative and develop clients and mashups with Twitter data. Not only does this have the likely effect of getting more users onto the platform, but it also allowed Twitter to learn about what users wanted, and how to build excellent additions to their core offering.

Just recently this learning was made concrete by Twitter’s acquisition of Tweetdeck. This is the ultimate symbol of learning from expert users — users who knew more about how to enhance Twitter’s fundamental services than Twitter did itself.

Google and Facebook both have strong API environments, and external developers have pushed both these platforms creatively and technically. Sometimes these technological and creative advancements

are adopted by Google and Facebook, and sometimes they are left to develop on their own, pushing increased usage of the platforms.

Product expertise

My next example involves Google, a company with a handful of products, but an incredible breadth of skills, personnel and technology behind it. This breadth has enabled Google to build innovative products that integrate with each other and leverage one another’s popularity and functionality, but it also often means that internally experts on one product as a whole are hard to find. There will of course be technical experts who understand how the data that drives the product works, but not necessarily a strong force of people who understand the product well from a user and a functional perspective.

A case in point is Google AdWords, Google’s search and content advertising platform. Not long ago some senior members of one of a local premier paid-search agencies visited the Google headquarters in Australia to understand how to serve new clients in the country better. It turned out that the Google representatives for AdWords knew far less about their own product than the local paid search people. This doesn’t have to be seen as a discredit to Google — in many ways there is far more motivation for someone who makes a living out of being an expert AdWords user to know the product inside out.

The motivation for employees at Google are to be either able to build a part of AdWords really well, or to sell it really well. Either way Google learned a lot from a bunch of people that knew more about their product than they did. This learning will help the company sell its product more successfully, and meet customer’s demands, questions and complaints more efficiently.

Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is a current buzzword, but there are many definite use cases that illustrate its power in finding practical solutions to business problems. A great example is the Facebook Translate project in which Facebook has created an application to allow its users to translate its interface. People using the application can suggest translations for various elements of the Facebook interface (e.g. ‘Poke’), and the translations are subsequently voted on.

This is a great example of allowing the very people who will be using the interface to define it to some extent. Facebook tacitly admits that it would not be able to do as good a job of translating its interface, as the people who use it and know what it means to them.

As more and more businesses are born in the web environment, or transition towards it more heavily, we will see the phenomenon of ‘user experts’ cropping up more frequently. Rather than identifying these instances as a failure to run a business optimally, intelligent companies will notice the immense amount of value that can be added by listening to, and working cooperatively with the people that know more about their business than they do themselves.

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