Feedback Is Dead! Long Live Feedback!

Photo by Rajesh TP from Pexels

Short excerpt from the intro to Feedback Rules, a B2B book & course for product people of all levels

The year is 1996. The Craft is the number-one movie at the box office and Mariah Carey’s Always Be My Baby is set to “repeat” on your Sony Discman. And, like a lot of people, you love a good burger. But not just any old, pedestrian burger. You want more complex flavor profiles, sublime ingredients — culinary artistry even. But you also want convenience. So, when the craving for a gourmet burger strikes, naturally you make a beeline for . . . McDonald’s.

We know, we know . . . that sounds a bit ridiculous. But it’s actually what McDonald’s thought would happen when they launched their Arch Deluxe – the “Burger with the Grown-Up Taste”, in May of 1996. Marketed as a more sophisticated alternative to their usual fare, they were confident they had a hit on their hands. After all, it wasn’t like they didn’t do their homework – they dedicated a substantial portion of their three hundred million-dollar launch budget to market research. But, as you might imagine, their higher-end fast food burger flopped despite all the feedback they amassed that had predicted a successful outcome.

It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback this costly failure, scratch our heads, and wonder whose idea it was to turn a fast food joint into a gourmet burger destination. But the thing is, their decision-makers felt utterly justified in moving forward because they had researched their concept with customers. They taste-tested it! They thought they had the data to prove that their Arch Deluxe would be a success. But, clearly, something got lost in translation.

And if a company like McDonald’s – with millions upon millions of dollars to throw at market research – can get it so horribly wrong, how is anybody else supposed to feel confident making costly decisions based on customer feedback? It’s enough to make you conclude that it’s really just a game of chance. Maybe you’ll act on a piece of feedback gold, get lucky and have a runaway success on your hands, or maybe you’ll end up releasing the next Earring Magic Ken.

Ring of Fire

Unless you happen to be a collector of kitsch memorabilia, you might not have heard of this notable feedback failure. The story goes like this: In the early 90’s, Mattel market researchers wanted to know if Barbie should keep her boyfriend or ditch him for a new model. So, they went straight to their target market – little girls. The consensus among the pigtail set was that Barbie should keep Ken, but Ken should be “cooler”.

And who better to determine the definition of cool for a bunch of little girls than the suits at Mattel? And so, Earring Magic Ken launched in 1993, replete with blond highlights, a purple mesh top, a matching purple vest, and a shiny earring in his left ear. But his most notable accessory was the flashy, circular, chrome ring he wore on a ribbon around his neck, a bauble that many – particularly in the gay community – could not help but notice had a more risque connotation than the toy designers had likely intended.

Ironically, Earring Magic Ken became the bestselling Ken doll at the time . . . at least among camp-minded gay men, who bought the doll in droves. Parents of young girls, on the other hand, weren’t exactly thrilled at the idea of purchasing a sexually-ambiguous toy whose jewelry raised more questions than they were prepared to answer. An embarrassed Mattel apologized, and Earring Magic Ken was quickly pulled from the shelves.

While Mattel did unwittingly create a campy collectible keepsake, the toy itself was a failure. Earring Magic Ken is a textbook example of what happens when you take customer feedback literally and interpret it through your own biased lens.

Facebook, Go Home

Even seasoned researchers who think they’re following sound scientific principles can get their signals crossed and make serious missteps sometimes, especially if they make the mistake of conducting their research with their own employees rather than actual users. That’s what happened with Facebook Home. Touted as a potential game-changer for the company, this 2013 project was meant to be a UI layer for Android, essentially a replacement home and lock screen that would allow users to interact with and post to Facebook right from their home screens.

The lead UX researcher for the project, Marco De Sa, shared his methodology – which included diary studies, interviews, observations, and surveys – with Fast Company in April of 2013:

“We used logging for different types of events. We used focus groups. We had internal conversations with users to get feedback as well. I think the combination of those different approaches allowed us to see some patterns emerge and focus on the right things. Each of those individually was really usable for certain types of interactions, to cover certain types of issues that the product has. The combination was something that was really interesting, and I think really paid off in the end.” (https://www.fastcompany.com/3008397/how-facebook-did-ux-testing-facebook-home-fewer-60-people)  

Only, despite his “combination of approaches”, it didn’t exactly pay off. For starters, hours after Home launched on April 12, 2013, the reviews in the Google Play Store were already less than glowing. While users acknowledged the experience of using Home was polished, the issues ran deeper: Some said Home diminished the experience of using other apps; others cited privacy concerns. Facebook attempted updates in response to the poor reception, with the last update only months later, in December of the same year, after which it disappeared from the Play Store, never to be seen again.

Cautionary tales like these are probably exactly why you’re so hesitant to take what feels like a huge risk and act on your own customer feedback. It’s tricky – dangerous even! And so, maybe you’ve decided it’s a lot safer to just stick to your own vision. But the fact is, ignoring your customers can be just as dangerous as blindly listening to them.

Take the Fire Phone (Please)

After enjoying success with the Kindle and Fire tablets, it’s no wonder Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos decided the next logical step in building his electronics empire would be to make a smartphone. And Bezos’s phone would follow his own singular vision. According to Fast Company, Bezos’s guiding principle for Amazon has always been to start with the needs and desires of the customer and work backward. But when it came to the Fire Phone, that customer apparently became Jeff Bezos.” He masterminded — some would say insisted — on every feature: the “dynamic perspective” which gave the UI a 3D perspective; “Mayday,” a 24-hour customer service tool, and “Firefly,” a text and sound recognition tool, even the inelegant hardware design. According to a designer on the project, In essence, we were not building the phone for the customer – we were building it for Jeff.”  (https://www.fastcompany.com/3039887/under-fire

At last, in July 2014, Bezos’s baby, the Fire Phone, went on sale for $199 with a two-year contract. Within six weeks, that price had dropped to 99 cents. By the following year, the phone was no longer listed as available on the Amazon site. As it turned out, Jeff Bezos was not representative of the Amazon customer, and his vision didn’t resonate with anyone but himself.

On Top of the Flops

The Arch Deluxe, Earring Magic Ken, Facebook Home, the Fire Phone – one big lesson from these feedback flops seems to be that you can’t guarantee success, no matter what approach you take to feedback. How can you ever come up with a strategy to innovate or grow? On the face of it, it seems like a paralyzing dilemma.

For more information about Feedback Rules, visit here.