“Nobody ever listens”

I went out to dinner last week with 3 colleagues – just a few drinks and something to eat whilst we chatted. The staff took good care of us and we had a thoroughly good evening. As we were presented with the bill, we asked if we could add ten percent, split it four ways and pay with cards, but we were met with an “oops – sorry, we can’t do that“. This was the first problem we had encountered all evening. The waitress explained that the tills weren’t able to take payment for anything different from what was on the bill. Any tips would have to be paid in cash. She said it was a common problem and that she had told her boss about it, but “nobody ever listens“. We tried every way of “tricking” the system into allowing us to overpay but we failed and as none of us had any cash with us, we left without tipping the staff.


What makes this story all the more worrying, is that I had visited the same place four years ago with the same friends, and had experienced the exact same scenario.

Four years is a lot of not listening!

Many years ago as a newly qualified Project Engineer designing military electronics in the defence industry, I vividly recall an early experience working “in the field” with soldiers testing our prototype systems. I heard directly from the soldiers about exactly where the problems lay and was given countless possible solutions to consider. I returned to the office with the words “nobody ever listens to us” ringing in my ears, excited at the prospect of being able to implement some of the proposed solutions. My peers listened intently as I explained what I’d learned. My bosses insisted that we continue following the specifications which they had been issued. Contractually this was correct, but those soldiers never got what they were crying out for, and we perpetuated the feeling that “nobody ever listens to us”.

In all my years of designing systems and products, several key themes have emerged:

1. Start right
If you get started on the wrong foot, you might never recover. As soon as specifications are approved and contracts are signed, everything becomes a whole lot more complicated to change. Suddenly you find you’re negotiating with contract owners, legal people, buyers, suppliers and other people who are themselves possibly even further removed from the user. And as this happens, so the prospect of delighting the user further diminishes.

2. Check assumptions
It’s perfectly okay to make assumptions – provided you spell them out so they’re clear, and that you check they are valid. Not just once, but regularly. Context, competition, pricing, expectations, trends, value – be sure that your solution remains valid throughout the execution phase, and right up until the point of handover. If your assumptions change, your solution needs to be reevaluated.

3. Stay flexible
It’s pretty rare that a product or service can remain completely unchanged throughout its life. While Agile development methods can accommodate software changes, hardware changes can be more complex. However, the much more limiting factor is mindset. My early bosses were not thinking in an Agile manner when they were insisting on following the specification. The methods only work if the mindset is right. Create the right mindset to enable the methods to work properly.

4. Listen to the user
Delighting the user must be one of the top goals for any product manager. If you can find a way of delighting a user, he or she will find a way of loving your product. Delighted users quickly spread positive messages. Users aren’t always customers, of course (as in my first example of a restaurant point-of-sale system), but that is no reason to ignore them. The ability of any product to delight its users is critical to its success in the market, and any product manager who doesn’t actively listen is playing a very dangerous game.

What do you think? Please add comments below.

1 thought on ““Nobody ever listens”

  1. After the announcement of PlayStation4 at the E3 tradeshow, Andrew House was asked about Sony’s business model – particularly in the light of Microsoft’s earlier announcement about restrictions on pre-owned games. He said “clearly we’ve listened to the consumer and heard that it’s very important to them as well… also that they wanted us to make our stance clear, and that’s what we’ve articulated tonight”.
    This is a perfect example of an organisation listening to its consumers, and the effect of that active listening is likely to be emphasised by its contrast with Microsoft’s controversial stance.
    Sony have spent many years building a huge user community, and they represent a vocal (and well-connected) population who should not be ignored. Having angered their own community it will be interesting to see how Microsoft manage the situation in the short-term, and how it evolves over the longer term.

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