Your Best Friend Is Your Product’s Worst Enemy

The Emperor’s New Product

When you’re developing at an older, established company, your product has history and inertia to build on. Your strategy is incremental — building on old successes and (cough) avoiding new projects that have the slightest whiff of failure. You also probably have a big, vocal customer base. You know that you’re making new stuff for people that already buy your old stuff.

At your start-up, all this goes out the window. No history, no inertia, no customers. The moment your prototype is ready, you want feedback from everyone you can muster. And who are you most likely to ask? Your friends. They’ve been cheering along from the sidelines, investing ramen and rounds of beer along the way to keep you going. Naturally, you’re going to want to show off your hard work the moment you have a working demo. How do they respond? “This is great!” “Can’t wait to start using it!” “We wish we’d thought of this!” Wow, you’re cooking now. What more validation do you need? Ship it for chrissakes!

Not so fast. This is the trap we nearly fell into last July. We had nearly finished the prototype of Keepsy — our group photo-album site — and had rave reviews from those close to us. To make matters worse, we also did a round of conventional user-testing with strangers which had great results (or so it seemed). Nearly every user mentioned how fun the product was, and when asked for criticism, offered little, if any. Our path to product/market fit was going to be short and sweet. Green light, right?

We were about a week from shipping when I noticed that an acquaintance had not yet added his page to a test album we were creating for a mutual friend’s birthday. I sent him an instant message and asked him about the hold up. He response was, “some issues with site”. When pressed further, he declined further comment. He felt it was a discussion best done in person. So I invited him to come by the office to chat.

He arrived the next morning at 9am. What I thought was going to be a quick 30-minute coffee turned into a 7-hour forced march as he methodically began to rip apart each flow, question each design element down to the placement of every pixel, and basically shamed us into believing our product was ever ready to ship. Of course, it wasn’t a problem that his feedback was so thoroughly caustic. No, the problem was that we found ourselves agreeing with over 90% of this comments. It was like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes shouting above the din of the crowd, “Your product sucks!” and suddenly all of us were standing around very, very naked.

How could we have been so blind? The simple answer is that we’d been soliciting the feedback we wanted to hear — the rosy accolades from those we hold dear — instead of seeking out resistance and conflict. We had resisted the hard cold truth. The next day, we began our redesign. It cost us weeks, but at no point along the way did we hesitate or look back. The path was obvious to us now.