The Role of Users and “Power Users” in Product Development

I’ve worked with web startups for the past five years and one of the most overused adages is that “users must drive product development.” Of course, users do play an important role in shaping a product. But they don’t play the only role.

To state the obvious, users do play a role in product development because they are the ones using the product (or a similar one) each day. The problem with looking to users (or a user) only is that they are sometimes greedy (e.g., “We want all features…now!”), often are not knowledgeable about the larger marketplace, don’t always represent the correct sampling of the entire user base (or target user base), and typically are blind to business goals (e.g., how to make money).

Marshall Kirkpatrick’s recent analysis of Twitter highlights these types of issues from another angle. Namely, that Twitter employees might not truly understand how to develop Twitter successfully because they are not “power users.” Overall, he focuses on the volume of their tweets and number and type of people the employees are following compared to “power users.” Marshall uses this example to help bolster his argument:

To follow that analogy, if you were someone who used a heavy duty washer and dryer in your home and found out that the electric company didn’t employ people who regularly used any appliances bigger than a toaster – wouldn’t you be a little concerned about the long term viability of your power supply?

There are two issues with this example and Marshall’s piece in general: 1) The assumption that Twitter employees are average users. 2) His focus on what he considers “power users” and his unstated bias that they are the most important element in shaping a product.

Let’s consider the example above for a moment. A “power user” of electricity is probably doing more than just running a “heavy duty washer and dryer.” He’d probably be running about a hundred of them. Most average users of electricity are likely using a handful of appliances, with a central heating system, as well as some lights.

There’s recent data that supports that Twitter employees align more closely with a “power user” labeling than with the average user. Keeping the metaphor alive, Twitter employees probably aren’t running a hundred washers and dryers…but definitely many more than one. Harvard Business Publishing’s stats showed that “a typical Twitter user contributes very rarely” and that “over half of Twitter users tweeting less than once every 74 days.” Comparatively, it would seem Twitter employees are well ahead of the curve if they post several tweets a day and are following more than several hundred people. That point debunks Marshall’s premise of Twitter employees having a “different understanding” of Twitter but it doesn’t address if “power users” should be looked to as product sages.

While never defined, let’s assume that the “power users” are the most devoted and obsessive users of a particular product or service. They are the ones that might leverage a product outside its originally intended use, are the most vocal about what they like or dislike, and have the highest expectations for what a product is now and what they expect it to be. For most startups, consider “power users” to be tech celebs, influential digerarti, early adopters, and many people living in Silicon Valley.

If you are building a product or service that you hope will one day completely infiltrate the masses (like say, Twitter) and continually attempt to satisfy this group of “power users,” you are going to fail. “Power users” will never represent the types of users that use cases need to be developed against, are usually going to find something to complain about, and will always somehow feel entitled to dictate what a product should be even if they are not tied to the company or didn’t originate and build the idea themselves. On this last point, Marshall quotes Dave Winer who has concerns that Twitter users may not like Twitter’s business model when its revealed. Oops! That’s right, Twitter is supposed to have approval for its business model(s) from its “power users” or else!!!

The advantages of “power users” are clear — free promotion, feedback, and traction, especially during early stage development. But the pitfalls with this group are equally as clear — bad press, criticism, and threats to leave (and take others with them) when their whims are not addressed. In the case of Twitter, it’s fairly evident that the last category now holds little weight as Twitter has broken into mainstream vocabularly and widespread adoption.

Here’s the bottom line: **power users are just one segment of a user base and users are just one factor in influencing product development. **Does that mean that a power user has more, less, or an equal voice in the overall user base? The answer depends on the maturity of the product and the goals of the company. For example, “power users” might not equate to paying customers. In this case, if a goal is to see revenue growth, the features “power users” want should receive a much lower priority on the product roadmap and release cycle.

To put it frankly, “power users” may kick and scream with certain product releases. That’s happened with Twitter, Facebook, and others lately. It’s to be expected because people don’t like change and users think they know exactly what is right. As companies listen to users though, users also need to extend some trust to companies. After all, these companies and their founders are the ones who originally brought these extremely innovative and useful products to market. They spend countless hours in product meetings, study competitors, talk with advisors, and interact with a wide range of users (not just “power users”).

In conclusion, there are some fair questions in Marshall’s post. But ultimately his laser focus on Twitter “power users” driving product development is equally as problematic as “unknowing” Twitter employees doing the same.