Why Giving Customers What They Want is a Bad Idea

by Art

Last updated on July 25th, 2017

A while ago I came across a post on Reddit that got me thinking about giving customers what they want:

restaurant website what customers want

The original post received almost 7,000 upvotes. That’s a lot of restaurant customers who just want to see the menu, hours and address. And, if you’ve ever visited one of those complex and meandering restaurant websites, you probably agree.

Redditor QTheMuse says it best when he writes:

restaurant menu website fail

But let’s look at things from another angle. Specifically, with a quotation attributed to Henry Ford prior to the construction on the earliest automobiles:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

It turns out that there’s no evidence Henry Ford actually uttered this famous quote, but it’s one that almost certainly would have been true had he fired up Qualaroo (or it’s 1900 equivalent) and surveyed his potential users.

There’s a real juxtaposition here between the idea that “the customer is always right” and the one that many successful products are built around solving problems that people don’t know they have. Steve Jobs famously said that,

“Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.”

So which is the right path to follow? Today, I’m making a case for looking past giving customers what they (say they) want.

Figuring out what customers want is hard

On the face of it, it appears that we are not very good at giving customers what they want.

That’s a controversial statement, but it’s one that must be true. Otherwise, the issue of cart abandonment wouldn’t be causing massive headaches for e-commerce site owners all over the globe.

Currently, more than 2/3 of shoppers abandon their shopping carts without making a purchase. That’s a lot of website visitors who aren’t finding what they want.

From follow-up emails featuring vouchers, product suggestions and so on to elaborate retargeting campaigns, an entire industry has been built around shopping cart abandonment.

So what is it that visitors really want? The answer, in a nutshell, is that we don’t know. And that’s true for two reasons.

  1. “Visitors” is an incredibly loose term and can include everyone from competitors snooping on your checkout process and browsers looking to get an idea of price to shoppers who have been hunting for a particular product for weeks and are itching to buy.
  2. People don’t always know what they want. Or, to be more specific, what they want in the short term may not be what’s best for them in the long term.

Writing for the Appirio blog, Brian Wenzl says that it’s sometimes necessary for him to say the following to clients:

“I don’t think the specific approach you’re asking for is the best one, and I want you to have what you really want. Let us show you what it looks like if you optimize for Salesforce instead of thinking in terms of tools you’re used to.”

Admittedly, it’s true that Wenzl’s situation is a little different to those mentioned above because his end goal is the same as those of his clients – using tools to build a solution that will improve the overlap between customer and worker experience. It’s only the process itself that varies.

It’s difficult to imagine, for example, a way in which a Chinese restaurant can help its customers to reach a decision on what to order without showing them a menu. Or for Henry Ford to use his mass production line to provide his customers with faster horses.

Giving customers what they need is even harder



The Rolling Stones sang that “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes then you might find you get what you need.”

The theory is that, however misguided their attempts may be, every product, service or website is designed to address the needs of its potential users.

A huge problem is that making changes, even to what may have been an MVP (minimum viable product) is often met with extreme hostility.

From Facebook in 2010 to Instagram and Budweiser (uhh, make that “America”) in May of this year, it’s impossible for a brand to release a redesign without people saying that they hate it.

Or, if not hate it, then at least questioning its validity. Case in point: this article featuring 15 designers who have taken a shot a redesigning the Instagram logo themselves. As Tomas Laurinavicius writes in the above article:

“It’s not fair to judge any design work when you don’t know the brief, objectives and vision. But providing solutions is a proactive way to give feedback instead of whining how bad things are.”

He’s right, of course.

But, even though it probably wasn’t, let’s say that the aim of the logo redesign was to generate some noise around the accompanying redesign of the app itself.

If that was the case, it did an incredible job: the reaction to the sleek, minimal monochromatic design of the new app has generally been very favorable. Maybe the stark contrast between the black and white app itself and brash new logo is actually supposed to emphasize the changes to the app.

Of course, that’s pure speculation so I won’t spend too much time dwelling on it.

My point, or rather Tomas’s point, is that we as consumers have no idea what the redesign was supposed to achieve. We can only assume that it was supposed to give people what they need.

Sometimes customers don’t know what they want

According to UPS Pulse of the online shopper, 50% of carts are abandoned because visitors are “not ready to purchase now” and almost 20% because buyers “got distracted.”

And I haven’t even begun to talk about the 16% of people who abandon because they’re “just browsing.” That’s almost 2 people out of every 10 visitors who arrive on a site without any real intention of buying.

Michael Sueoka, Head of UX at The Mobile Majority, wrote the following on the Invision blog:

“People in everyday life don’t really know what they need—they just tell you what they *think* they want. People don’t always do what they say, and they rarely know how they’ll act in the future.”

Later in this article I take a look at the outrage that tends to come along when popular apps are redesigned. But do you know anyone still complaining about that Facebook redesign?

I don’t, and I probably know plenty of people who don’t have much better to do than hold grudges about redesigns.

Maybe people just get used to the changes that they once objected so strongly to, or maybe it turns out that the changes actually DID address the changing needs of users.

Over on inbound.org, user Jeff White has the following to say about the recent Instagram redesign:

new branding efforts instagram

I like his point, and it’s one that I try to remember whenever I start writing an angry email after a feature is removed from one of my favorite apps or composing a snotty comment about a company’s new logo.

When a customer says that something is wrong/ugly/a step backward, it’s usually true that they’ve only thought about it for a few minutes and exclusively from their point of view.

Provided changes are made after lengthy discussions, lots of research and consideration of different types of user, it’s OK that some people don’t like them. In fact, it should be expected.

Why what customers want might be “wrong”

For evidence that giving customers what they want, or giving them what it seems like they want, isn’t always a great idea we need only look at some of the great tech pivots of recent years:

  • Twitter, or Twttr as it was known then, was originally conceived as an app that broadcasted a single text message to all your friends
  • Instagram, then known as Burbn, was once a location-based app that allowed users to connect with friends, check in to venues (a la Foursquare) and post pictures of events
  • Craigslist, when it launched 20 years ago, was designed as a sort of social network that would allow friends to stay in contact and find out what was going on near where they were

If each of these products was built to answer some market need—which we have to assume that they were, otherwise why bother building them?—we can see that either their creators didn’t understand what their audience wanted and/or the audience itself didn’t really know what it wanted.

It’s certainly possible that it could be a little of column A and a little of column B, but the following statement must be true:

New inventions/companies/products that are successful answer needs that people don’t know they have.

This must be true, because if they were addressing a need that people DID know existed then somebody would already have created something to deal with it.

Let’s consider another angle. Sometimes brands may be planning to do something users don’t know about that affects what constitutes a good decision.

The vast majority of social sharing icons are red or blue. Here are some of SumoMe’s default choices:

sumome sharing buttons

Instagram doesn’t currently have a sharing button, but it may be (more speculation…) something they’re thinking about introducing. Their new icon…

new instagram icon

…would certainly stand out in that sea of red and blue.

Suddenly, what seemed like a questionable design decision to users starts to look like a wise move. And, even if there is no plan to introduce sharing buttons, the icon still grabs attention and will likely appeal to its teenage demographic.

What customers ACTUALLY want may not exist yet

In a previous article for this blog, I wrote about Palace Skateboards’ product descriptions. They range from the witty and playful to the nonsensical…

palace skateboards product descriptions

…but people seem to love it. The Guardian recently ran a feature on how the brand became so popular, in which its founder shares his secrets on how he writes these illustrious product descriptions:

“I sit in front of the TV with a takeaway and type on my iPhone absolute nonsense in bullet points and people find it funny.”

Palace’s way of doing things is definitely not the answer you’d get if you sat a focus group down and asked what they want from product descriptions. They’d tell you that they want clear, concise and informative. Palace’s descriptions are none of these things.

Likewise, if you’d run one in 1995 (pre-Innocent Smoothies) asking people whether they wanted a wise-cracking llama on their breakfast juice, I know exactly the answer you’d have received. But just look at Innocent go.

Like Palace, Innocent’s success was a bit of a happy accident:

“To be honest, we were mucking about when we started. None of us were copywriters back then…and we had this space on our labels that we had to fill. It wasn’t a conscious decision designed to differentiate us from anyone else.”

Had Palace and Innocent played it safe and done things by the book, i.e. trying to do what they thought their customers wanted, there’s no guarantee that they would have been so successful.

Final Thoughts

Is it wise to let your users, or potential customers, dictate the future direction of your company? No. As they say, a camel is a horse by committee. In other words, try to please everyone and you’ll fail to please anyone.

On the other hand, being too stubborn to see when a good idea is right in front of you just because it deviates from what you initially planned is also foolhardy. Is there a happy medium? In a word, yes. But it’s not an easy one to find.

In fact, if I knew how to strike the perfect balance of giving your customers what they want while knowing with certainty that it’s the right thing for your company I’d be working as a $500 an hour “redesign consultant” for a big brand somewhere.

Trying to give your customers what they need (which may not the same as what they want) is usually a good start, but you should always be willing to pivot in a way that makes sense based on what’s generating revenue.

Remember that your most vocal critics may not be your best customers.

There’s no doubt that taking risks—like going against what users say they want—is scary but, as Armin Vit comments in a Brand New article about the new Instagram logo, people have a short term memory about these things:

“It will only be a matter of time—three months, probably—before this is known, recognized, and considered as the Instagram app icon.”

Whether they knew it or not, Innocent took a risk when their smoothies started talking to the world. So did Palace when they started using street lingo and off the wall humor on their site. Only when people started tweeting about their “bare jokes product descriptions, fam” did they know that they were on to something.

If you can capture even a slice of their success then you’ll know that you’re on to something too, even if it’s not what your customers thought they wanted.



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Art is a freelance copywriter/content marketer based in the UK. He's worked with both startups and large corporations on topics ranging from fitness to tech and business issues.


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  1. Anonymous says:
    June 12, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    You are so cool! I do not think I’ve read something like this before.

    So good to discover somebody with a few unique thoughts on this
    subject matter. Really.. many thanks for starting this up.
    This website is one thing that’s needed on the web, someone with
    a little originality!

  2. Sean Work says:
    May 19, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    I have to mention Final Cut Pro. This was a classic example where Apple completely changed their video editing software in a version release and they’ve never recovered from it. Every person I know in the film industry has switched to Adobe Premier or another video editing app. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t take risks and be afraid to change course. But maybe test your new update with a portion of your user base before you push it out to everyone. Perhaps Apple did this – I don’t know. On the other hand, so much $, time and resources went into the new version, there was no heading back.

  3. Klaus says:
    May 18, 2016 at 3:30 am

    I agree, it is very important to have a good balance between giving your customers what they want and what is actually possible for your product, while still being true to you self.

  4. Sarah Arrow says:
    May 17, 2016 at 1:46 pm

    I shared thoughts with my subscribers alone these lines the other day. I used the example of Boaty Mcboatface, and Henry Ford. Often the opinion sought is validation rather than an actual need or desire from the customer. Customers are superb at saying what they think you want to hear, and that creates all kinds of problems or disconnection. Ultimately, the public are very fickle and trying to keep on the right side of them is impossible. What’s hot one day is isn’t user friendly the next. We can’t win, and if we could I suspect it wouldn’t last long

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