Why customer feedback is killing your innovation efforts

What feedback really means

feedback (fēdˈbăkˌ)
n.
The return of a portion of the output of a process or system to the input, especially when used to maintain performance or to control a system or process.

Feedback is not what people think it is. Originally, feedback is an electronic signal received in response to an electronic output. The signal received back can help determine if the outbound signal was “right” or received properly. Today, the term can be applied to non-electronic and non-automated processes, too.

Feedback is good for improving or correcting a process. It’s not good for measuring the impact of the process. Feedback on a product feature, for example, may tell you if it works as expected, but not if the feature contributes to some larger desired outcome. If you want to know about the desired outcome, you have to ask explicitly for that.

True “feedback” must be in response to a specific outbound signal and must be provided by somebody or something that fundamentally understands that output and its purpose.

Instead, we do it wrong. We ask for feedback:

  • Without defining the objective
  • From people who have no businesses providing it
  • In ways that don’t work

Feedback vs. opinions

Your method of eliciting feedback matters (and actually determines whether you are in fact getting “feedback”). Ironically, your target is more likely to give feedback in the true definition of the word, than how you desire or intend it to be. Asking for feedback takes the target out of the correct context for your purposes.

Entrepreneurs love the idea of pitching their idea and then asking for feedback: “What do you think?” The question doesn’t seek to understand whether the product solves the potential user’s problem, but rather asks the customer to help the entrepreneur. The context is the entrepreneur’s problem of desiring a successful product.

The “user” is prone to give advice on the pitch or on the potential success of the idea. The features she may proffer are not ones she will necessary use or pay for, but rather features she would build as if she were the entrepreneur!

Is that what you intended?

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Let’s look at an example.

Say you’re seeking to disrupt air travel hoping to reinvent the traveler’s experience through modular airplane interiors. In pursuit of this idea, you might want to learn:

  • The level of dissatisfaction with current design
  • Whether the new system will improve the level of satisfaction
  • Whether the new system will hurt the current level of satisfaction

You could use surveys to get “feedback” on some aspects of current air travel. You could have users rate their experiences; you could utilize Net Promoter Score to measure customer “passion.” Customers will be able to respond honestly because you’re asking how they feel with respect to their travel experience.

It’s not “feedback” to ask them whether they’d like a modular interior design. Nor is it “feedback” to ask if they’d feel less safe. They don’t know. They can’t know. Similarly, it’s not “feedback” to ask airplane manufacturing people those questions.

You’re asking for customer speculation. Is this valuable? Is this your intention? Again, true feedback demands knowledge or expertise with respect to the question being asked.

Bottom line:

  • “Feedback” is for responding to a defined process or output
  • Qualitative “feedback” is not right for measuring customer impact or achieving aspiration
  • Feedback giver should be an “expert” in the domain they’re providing feedback on

Feedback’s role in lean innovation

Asking for feedback incorrectly is simply an invitation to criticize.

The target is no longer acting as an agent of the process and is now mentally engaged with the question about the quality of your performance, regardless if the process achieved its purpose or not.

To many startup entrepreneurs and corporate innovators, asking potential customers and users for “feedback” is the sum and scope of their “customer development” practices. It also happens to be a primary critique of lean startup, pointing to the comments of “visionary” entrepreneurs famous for stating that they’d never ask customers about product needs or desires.

Thing is, the “visionaries” are right. But the problem is not in the asking, it’s how one asks and what one learns. Customers are notoriously bad at providing useful product “feedback” because their responses are merely speculated opinions based on current preferences from past experiences. They know what they like and don’t like about existing products, but that’s about it.

For this reason, Lean Innovation techniques seek to run experiments that measure customer behavior that better demonstrate the value of a product or feature instead of merely asking for “feedback” about a solution idea.

Generally, the more “innovative” the idea, the less likely asking your potential customer about it will yield accurate results. This is also why many traditional market research techniques like focus groups and surveys are also less likely to yield useful data or insights for more innovative ideas.


When working on something new, consider if you should ask for feedback at all.

Anyone will give you feedback whether or not they have the expertise to do so. How you present your request determines the likelihood of its relevance.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 295,232+ people.

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