Audience size will drive how much you should listen to the user.

The Globe and Mail ran an article about the downfall of RIM.  Part of the article was about the hubris of RIM engineers and how they thought they knew better than their customers on the future of phones.

“The problem wasn’t that we stopped listening to customers,” said one former RIM insider. “We believed we knew better what customers needed long term than they did. Consumers would say, ‘I want a faster browser.’ We might say, ‘You might think you want a faster browser, but you don’t want to pay overage on your bill.’ ‘Well, I want a super big very responsive touchscreen.’ ‘Well, you might think you want that, but you don’t want your phone to die at 2 p.m.’ “We would say, ‘We know better, and they’ll eventually figure it out.’ ”

The thing is up until 5 years ago the RIM engineers were fully justified in thinking this way.  They had proven it and backed it up by delivering market leading devices that performed better than anything to that point.

But over time markets move and audience’s desires change.  That’s the important part of understanding design directions – you have to change direction at some point.  Maybe not today or tomorrow but at some point.  Say what you will about it, but iOS 7 from Apple is their response to the need to change direction.  RIM never made this design shift.

Whatever system or product you are building you need to understand the inflection points of your audience and market.  A start-up has a very different market and customer base than an established player.  And successful companies eventually have to make that mental leap.

But at the same time, start-ups may feel like they become established before they actually have and they lose their edge and get passed before they actually hit the point of establishment.  Or they become established and keep innovating and changing enough to drive up their customer’s frustrations.

Ultimately you need to know where you fall in the continuum of the market and constantly be evaluating that standing.  Market leaders sometimes need to switch back into start-up mentality (like RIM, MySpace, AOL, Yahoo and many others) or they will fall away and die their enterprise death.

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