When tech innovation infuriates customers

December 29, 20165 Minute Read

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As IT managers know well, technology for the sake of technology is just that—exciting for the technologist and the geek-inclined, but not beneficial to the user. Tech innovation powers massive advancements on both the macro and micro levels for society, businesses, and individuals, but there are frequent cases in which technology companies release “innovations” they breathlessly describe as revolutionary, life-changing improvements. Then, their users either privately hate or publicly troll these same features with sarcastic memes on social media.

What should we, as technologists, take away from moments when new product or feature rollouts are met with a resounding Bronx cheer? Here are some recent examples of innovation gone wrong, innovation done right, and what IT pros can learn from it all.

What were they thinking?

I know this question’s been beaten to death already, but it still bears asking: What the hell was Apple thinking when it got rid of the 3.5-mm headphone jack? Anytime you break existing functionality your users depend on, you’d better have a good reason—i.e., a clear and compelling benefit to the user. Otherwise, you risk lack of adoption or an all-out rebellion in your user base.

As Slate notes, Apple had already come off a difficult patch with its customers when Apple Music didn’t go as planned, deleting entire libraries (as much as 20 years’ worth of music in one case) and deeply frustrating music lovers in the process. At a moment like this, companies should proceed with caution when rolling out new innovations. Apple, however, forged ahead, replacing the familiar analog jack with a lightning port in a move they said took “courage.”

The consequences of user backlash

Apple claimed the change would allow them to provide wireless earbuds, better cameras, haptic feedback, and better battery life. But users, now required to use a dongle to attach their headphones to the lightning port, started losing the small connector cords en masse and vociferously complaining about it. Apple also created friction in the user experience (UX) where none existed by making it impossible to listen to music while charging. Users sarcastically responded, expressing their sadness with—you guessed it—Crying Jordan. Other memes took aim at the reduced functionality, questioning Apple’s wisdom in abandoning the analog jack.

What prompted Apple to make this radical switch? It’s possible that, like Facebook (we’ll get to them in a minute), Apple decided it’d be better to aggressively push forward with an innovation they felt would benefit users in the long run, suffer the temporary backlash, make some concessions if necessary, and then proceed with their original product road map after the furor died down.

But tech companies risk being viewed as arrogant and unreceptive to user concerns when they barrel through with unpopular changes rather than ensuring their products respond to their customers’ needs. This can negatively affect customer satisfaction and loyalty, particularly if companies persist in repeating this behavior and ignoring the feedback they receive in response.

Facebook downvotes clickbait

Although Facebook is no stranger to controversy when it comes to making changes, the social media giant earned accolades for its recent decision to fight back against clickbait. Users had long complained that clickbait articles—which used sensational and misleading headlines to dupe them into clicking on a fake or fluffy story to drive website traffic—cluttered their news feeds and degraded their Facebook UX. As TechCrunch reports, Facebook took the unhappy user feedback seriously, creating a new anti-clickbait algorithm to weed out the most egregious offenders and punish publishers who repeatedly engaged in this deceptive practice. Facebook users applauded the social network for taking such a proactive step to improve the quality of their experience on the site.

That story may come with a happy ending, but there’s a sequel: According to Vox News, Facebook is now coming under fire for allowing fake news stories to go viral on its platform in the first place. Critics allege this dynamic influenced the outcome of the recent US presidential election. Google faced similar complaints, and both companies responded by taking steps to keep false and misleading stories from appearing on their advertising networks.

According to Wired, Twitter, which has been criticized for allowing hate speech to flourish unchecked on its site for years, has begun rolling out filtering tools to curb abuse on the platform. However, users who’ve been severely harassed online are claiming that it’s too little too late. If Twitter took such steps earlier, they likely would have received praise, rather than scorn.

User complaints are gifts in disguise

What can technologists take away from these examples of innovation? Although it may not feel like it at the time, it’s actually a positive thing when users complain about a new feature or product. That feedback allows a company to understand precisely what their customers need—and what they don’t. Such insight is valuable not only in forming a response, if appropriate, but also in designing future technology and innovative features that may affect users in similar ways. Anytime a customer complains about something that’s gone wrong, they’re actually doing you a favor. You can use this opportunity to set things right and run a smarter business in the future.

Let’s use this feedback to inform the way we approach technology and engage with our users on an ongoing basis. By placing their needs at the center of our innovation initiatives, we can continually enhance our capacity to create technology solutions that are truly transformative, not just shiny. That’s the type of tech innovation everyone can get excited about!

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