The Dangers of Customer Feedback or: How to Avoid the Dreaded Product Death Cycle

The Dangers of Customer Feedback or: How to Avoid the Dreaded Product Death Cycle

If somebody built an app that spit out a dollar every time an entrepreneur quoted Henry Ford’s alleged statement “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”, they’d be rich.

Regardless of how overused this quote might be, there’s a lot to like about it. Radical breakthroughs in tech are unlikely to happen when you ask customers what they want. They happen because somebody had a vision and made it happen. 

At first glance, this notion appears to be at odds with the lean startup MVP strategy. The premise of MVP is built on the idea that you deploy a product with minimal features to test whether or not there is a market for it. Customer feedback is then used to iterate on through to profitability, or until you decide it’s time to gas the idea and move on.

It’s a great strategy that’s been tested countless times, but it’s not without at least one significant flaw. San Francisco-based management consultant David Bland nailed it with this diagram, which describes what he calls the Product Death Cycle. It identifies customer feedback as a potential bug not a feature.


So how can something as valuable as customer feedback possibly be a problem? While we can learn a lot from customers, it’s important to keep their feedback in perspective. As a user, it’s easy to spot problems but a lot harder to figure out solutions that work. Solutions suggested by customers are most likely going to be clunky or conservative in their approach, following examples they’ve seen elsewhere.

Here’s where it get dangerous…

If you simply act on what you hear from users and start building features based on their feedback, you may end up building that faster horse Ford was so worried about, and enter the death cycle described by Bland.

Balancing feedback with vision

This is where vision comes in. Granted, user feedback that identifies problems with your product is invaluable. But it takes vision and innovative thinking to get to the root of what’s driving the negative feedback. Maybe there’s something wrong with how you’ve priced your product. Maybe it’s the way you bill. Maybe your onboarding process is confusing. Or maybe onboarding works great, but the UI is non-intuitive and users fade away after a few visits.

If somebody is telling you exactly where you’re failing, that’s fantastic. It makes it all the easier to identify the problem and come up with a solution that provides an elegant fix without falling into the trap of building more features nobody needs, even if they think they do.


Joshua Bixby

Like most tech troublemakers, I’m a problem-solver who likes to explore new ideas and play devil’s advocate (not necessarily in that order).

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