While reading the Wall Street Journal this morning, the Facebook story caught my eye. Facebook has clearly built a huge community and is one of the leading social networks on the web. However, I was mystified about the backlash the company received about its new service allowing users to better keep track of their friends and what they are doing. On the surface it seems like the company was trying to make it easier for their users to keep track of their friends’ whereabouts and online activities. However, it seems that there is a huge privacy backlash online (according to USA Today already 500k of 9.5mm members are against this) – I guess part of the lure of the Facebook that it was more of a closed network than MySpace. All that being said, I am mystified because I wonder what level of customer feedback the company solicited in rolling out its new service. Sure, the larger your audience is, the harder it is to make everyone happy. In addition, there are many factors that go into the release of a new product that includes fixing bugs, soliciting customer feedback, responding to competition, and adding new features that will maintain a company’s technological lead in the market. According to the Wall Street Journal article today:
Ms. Deitch said Facebook’s feedback from users comes in the form of emails to its customer-service email address, which the company’s product-development team reviews weekly. But the company typically doesn’t solicit feedback by showing features to users before launching them.
Facebook held an emergency meeting yesterday to plan its response to the backlash. Ms. Deitch said that the new features are "here to stay" but that staffers are discussing possible tweaks to appease users. She wouldn’t say what those changes might be.
While you cannot solely develop based on what existing customers want because you may miss the next big opportunity, I thought the benefit of web-based software was that you could test and tweak very easily. If what Facebook’s spokesperson says is true ("But the company typically doesn’t solicit feedback by showing features to users before launching them"), I would suggest that they build some new release practices to maybe roll out a new feature to a subset of the population and gather feedback before having to deal with this maelstrom of negative publicity. Isn’t that what a lot of the best web-based businesses already do? To be fair, Mark Zuckerberg has responded admirably and promptly to his community. However, he could have avoided this all in the first place if he tested the implementation of the new features with a small subset of his community and I am sure that he would have learned that balancing privacy may have been more important for his users than raw functionality. My advice to many startups (particularly web-based ones) – after internal QA, try testing new features with a small sample set to further refine and tweak before GA.