Don’t define your customers, let your customers define you.

07/22/2009

Never underestimate the creativity of your customers. You may think you have a great product, but don’t get married to your intended purpose for it. It’s quite possible that customers will find alternative uses you may not have even thought of, maybe even better uses. If you’re launching a new product, particularly a web app, be prepared to adapt it to the way your customers actually use it, and not necessarily the way you designed it.

Original sketch of what would become Twitter

Original sketch of what would become Twitter

The most recent, and high profile example of this is Twitter. Twitter was originally designed as a “what are you doing/thinking/status” feed for friends. 140 character limits forced you to keep it short and sweet, and post more often. At first, this is how people used it, but after a while we all grew bored reading about how so and so was heading to the mall, or feeling a bit down today, or enjoying the rain.

Looking at twitter today, I think celebrities are the only ones left posting the mundane details of their daily activities. The rest of us have re-purposed Twitter for other uses. We have conversations, we share the latest news with shortened URLs, we plug our latest blog posts and company announcements, and then we ‘retweet’ anything we think our followers would think is interesting. Twitter is being used as a gauge for measuring hot topics, and for insight into consumer opinion and behavior. Brands are engaging with customers, providing technical support, hawking their wares, and turning their customer service reps loose. Then there are those who use Twitter as an alternative to RSS. And on the dark side, some users are trying to establish a Twitter beachhead for their “make money from home” affiliate businesses.

The reason there isn’t a plan for monetizing Twitter is that the primary use of Twitter has not really been established yet – it’s in constant flux.

Twitter has done a good job at adapting to these new uses. They have adopted the @user nomenclature for mentions, added top 10 trending lists, and opened up an API for data mining, spawning a whole industry of satellite businesses built around the information in the Twitter network. A new Twitter app shows up about every 3 days. Twitter would be nowhere if they had insisted that their service just be used for stream of conscious updates from teenagers.

At Mural, we’re close to officially launching a new site called CloudProfile, with sister company SMBLive. We’ve designed it with a specific purpose in mind – connecting small businesses with customers on the web, and in particular with social networks. But we’re already thinking of alternative uses, just for ourselves. Instead of setting up a central company blog, for example, we’re planning to simply give every employee their own CloudProfile, and then setting up a page on our site that aggregates the collective wisdom of all of our employees. It means everyone is connected to their own networks, as well as the corporate network, and upkeep of the blog doesn’t fall to one person or become a laborious task.

I love the idea of building tools that can be used in a myriad of new ways, and can’t wait to see what the world does with CloudProfile. As you build your apps, make sure that you’re building tools that empower users, not restrict them. Don’t spend forever building the perfect feature-complete app, but get an initial version out early and watch what people do with it. It may be used in ways you didn’t expect, and you should be nimble enough to assign development resources to supporting those unexpected uses. Connect your users together so they can share how they use it and allow good ideas to spread. The more uses your app has, the more valuable it becomes to more customers, so embrace it!