Under the Radar

171: Customers, Audience, and Critics


00:00:00   Welcome to Under the Radar, a show about independent iOS app development.

00:00:04   I'm Marco Arment.

00:00:05   And I'm David Smith.

00:00:06   Under the Radar is never longer than 30 minutes, so let's get started.

00:00:09   So for today, something that has been rattling around in my head for the last few weeks

00:00:15   that I thought would be an interesting topic for the show

00:00:17   is separating and understanding that there are...

00:00:21   When I think about it, I think there's three distinct groups

00:00:25   of people that we should be thinking about and concerning ourselves with

00:00:30   in the development of our app.

00:00:32   And those three groups are our customers, our audience, and our critics.

00:00:38   And each of those groups are very distinct in terms of the impact

00:00:44   and the importance that we should be giving to them

00:00:48   and the way in which that they should impact our development process

00:00:52   and the things that we pay attention to

00:00:56   and the way that we choose what features to work on

00:00:58   and even the apps that we choose to decide and make.

00:01:02   Because they all have very distinct characters.

00:01:05   And this is certainly a situation where you imagine some kind of Venn diagram

00:01:09   where there's an overlap for a particular app or a particular person or developer

00:01:15   for how those all play together.

00:01:17   But they all have a very distinct character.

00:01:19   And so the first one, and the most obvious one, is our customers.

00:01:23   And our customers are the group of individuals

00:01:27   who are the people who are using our app, who are supporting us,

00:01:32   who are giving us ultimately in some way saying,

00:01:36   "This is the core group of people who use what we make,

00:01:39   and from them we derive our income."

00:01:42   And whether that's directly via their paying us

00:01:45   or them looking at ads that we show in our applications or whatever that may be,

00:01:50   there's a group of people who are the day-to-day users of our applications

00:01:54   who are essentially the bread and butter,

00:01:58   the core group of people who make being an app developer work.

00:02:03   The next group of people in some ways is our audience.

00:02:07   And this is slightly a funny thing to get into,

00:02:10   but in some ways it's like the audience is the people that we

00:02:14   or it's like either our company or us as individuals,

00:02:18   if we're independent developers,

00:02:20   have influence over a group of people who care about us individually.

00:02:27   And they're aware, they know our name and they might know our story,

00:02:30   and they care about what we do, and they might,

00:02:33   the classic things would be like they follow you on social media

00:02:35   and are interested in what you have to say.

00:02:38   But they're potentially distinct from the customers and the users of your products.

00:02:45   So someone could be part of your audience who cares about you as a person

00:02:49   or as a company, but isn't necessarily someone who is a user of what it is you make,

00:02:55   in the same way that people might be interested in SpaceX

00:02:58   and the rockets that they send into space,

00:03:00   but they're not going out and actually buying rockets and sending them into space.

00:03:03   There's a difference there between the audience of SpaceX

00:03:06   and the customers of SpaceX,

00:03:08   and the same thing applies to any organization who's trying to make something.

00:03:13   And then lastly is the best word I could come up with was our critics.

00:03:20   These are people who potentially might be part of our audience

00:03:24   or part of our customer base,

00:03:26   but I think it's useful and important to differentiate them from the other two groups,

00:03:31   because these are people who aren't necessarily looking for our best interests.

00:03:39   There's a group of people, the more I've been doing this,

00:03:42   that seems like it continues and will always be there,

00:03:45   who are trying to find the problems rather than trying to find the solutions.

00:03:50   And they are looking at what you're doing.

00:03:54   In some ways it's like they're the antithesis of your audience,

00:03:56   who are typically people who are looking for the best of what you do.

00:04:02   There's a group of people who will often be looking for the worst of what you do

00:04:06   and trying to find it and trying to point it out to you and to the world.

00:04:10   And it is an awkward group of people to interact with,

00:04:13   because feedback is sometimes useful

00:04:16   and is sometimes an important part of development to get feedback back.

00:04:21   But there's a big difference, I find,

00:04:23   between the people who are just complaining to complain

00:04:26   or are trying to tear you down and work.

00:04:31   Rather than build up and trying to be constructive in what you're doing,

00:04:34   which is something that you would often see from your audience or your customers,

00:04:38   this is a group of people who are trying to just do the opposite.

00:04:42   They're trying to say that your products are bad or you're bad or whatever it may be.

00:04:48   And those three groups of people can have a wildly varied

00:04:54   and significant impact on you and what you do.

00:04:58   And I find, I think, that in my development,

00:05:01   the times in which I have focused most on just one at the exclusion of the other

00:05:06   is where I started to get into trouble.

00:05:08   And especially what I found,

00:05:10   and this is why this has bubbled to the surface for me more recently,

00:05:14   is that I think it is easy to get sucked into the trap of focusing on your critics,

00:05:20   who are typically the loudest people who are reaching out to you,

00:05:24   your audience, who are people who it's positive and it's affirming,

00:05:29   but that you might be reaching out to or having interactions with,

00:05:33   an email or support or on social media or whatever that might be.

00:05:36   But those two groups, which might be the loudest,

00:05:39   most obvious places to get feedback,

00:05:42   may or may not actually be your customers.

00:05:44   And the more you understand that your customer base

00:05:48   is a different group of people, potentially,

00:05:51   the better the products you can make.

00:05:54   And something that I've been having to rationalize recently

00:05:57   is how my audience is largely like Apple,

00:06:04   either people who are Apple fans or iOS developers.

00:06:08   Or it's the primary people for whom I have some amount of reach

00:06:12   and obvious connection to.

00:06:15   But those people are not really, or necessarily, my main customers.

00:06:20   My primary customer base is, I think, more typical, everyday users of iPhones

00:06:25   who are interested in tracking their health and fitness.

00:06:28   And some of those people are part of my audience,

00:06:31   but those two groups are very different, and they care about different things.

00:06:35   For example, when I'm thinking about iOS 13

00:06:38   and some of the more nuanced, pushing-the-hedge features in iOS 13,

00:06:43   my audience might really care about that.

00:06:45   It might actually be something that they think is really important and cool,

00:06:49   but my customer base may not actually care about that.

00:06:52   And if I gear myself up and spend a lot of time working on features

00:06:56   that my audience cares about but my customer base doesn't,

00:06:59   I'm setting myself up for problems down the road.

00:07:03   So anyway, that's sort of my long-winded way of saying this,

00:07:06   but anyway, this is sort of what I've been thinking about, Marco.

00:07:08   What do you think? Does that seem like a reasonable three groups of people?

00:07:11   Oh, absolutely. And I think, you know, you've given a great summary here

00:07:14   of a lot of the challenges and distinctions here.

00:07:17   One of the hardest things, I think, for an independent programmer like us

00:07:22   is deciding what to tackle, what to work on, what's important, what's not,

00:07:27   what's working in the app and what's not,

00:07:30   what's succeeding as a feature or a design and what's not.

00:07:34   And one of the reasons it's so difficult to ascertain these things

00:07:39   and to make choices based on this is that, as you mentioned,

00:07:43   these groups don't have a lot of overlap necessarily,

00:07:47   but you hear dramatically different amounts of feedback from them.

00:07:53   So, you know, it's so easy, our brains are kind of wired

00:07:58   to react harshly or strongly or to put a lot of weight on input from critics.

00:08:05   But, as you mentioned, like, not only are critics not necessarily even your customers

00:08:11   all the time, but they tend to represent a very small portion of your customer base.

00:08:17   Most of my customers I never hear from.

00:08:21   They don't know me, I don't know them, they never write in,

00:08:24   they never give any feedback, they never leave reviews.

00:08:27   The vast majority of the users of my app don't ever interact with me at all

00:08:34   or try to or give any kind of feedback at all.

00:08:36   So, you know, if you hear from, you know, it's called the silent majority,

00:08:42   if you hear from critics, you know, here or there about, you know,

00:08:46   certain features being a problem or certain opinions that they have

00:08:49   or certain designs not being intuitive or, you know,

00:08:52   they need you to do this one feature to make them happy or whatever else,

00:08:55   that is valuable input and sometimes it does represent a lot of people's opinions

00:09:01   who aren't writing to you.

00:09:02   It's like for every person who writes in, there's, you know,

00:09:05   ten other people who are having the same problem and never wrote to you

00:09:07   or whatever the number is, right?

00:09:08   So that is input that you need to consider.

00:09:11   But it's also really important to realize that the number of people you hear from

00:09:17   are not a representative random sample,

00:09:20   that there are lots of people who you hear from who have opinions

00:09:25   that you will never hear or that you will hear in much smaller numbers

00:09:29   than what their ratio would imply.

00:09:32   While critics bring up valuable points and you should listen to them,

00:09:37   what's difficult to ascertain from their feedback is how important it is for you to do this.

00:09:43   How should you prioritize what you do?

00:09:45   What things are really being a problem?

00:09:48   What things are important enough to tackle now rather than down the road or never?

00:09:53   That is what's really hard to judge.

00:09:55   By having these three groups be separate and by hearing very different amounts of feedback from them,

00:10:02   it's so hard to decide what's important and what's not.

00:10:06   What needs to be a sooner rather than later priority and what doesn't.

00:10:11   And that leads to all sorts of problems.

00:10:12   I mean, I fall into this trap all the time,

00:10:16   where the features that I choose to do or the things I work on or whatever,

00:10:21   like all the effort I put into all the offline watch playback,

00:10:25   because offline watch playback is something that most people don't need

00:10:30   and don't use and will never use even when I put it in.

00:10:34   But I heard from the people who wanted it every single day.

00:10:38   And eventually I took--

00:10:41   I spent probably a total between the various revisions of it,

00:10:45   probably eight months of development time on that feature.

00:10:49   And it's really unimportant to my app.

00:10:52   It was not worth the amount of time I put into it.

00:10:57   And yet I'm still going to do it again.

00:10:58   I'm going to rewrite my watch app again and make it even better this time,

00:11:03   even though no one's going to use it, just like all the previous ones.

00:11:07   But I want to do it for myself because I want the pride of having done a good job.

00:11:12   I want it to work for the handful of people who I hear from every day

00:11:15   who say it doesn't work for them.

00:11:17   I want it to work better. I want it to be good.

00:11:20   But one good anecdote, or at least help, to these communication asymmetries is data.

00:11:32   This is why analytics have gotten so popular in the industry.

00:11:37   And while I don't advise or condone third-party analytics solutions,

00:11:43   it is quite easy and trivial to build your own.

00:11:46   And you don't need to get super fancy with it. I didn't.

00:11:49   My analytics are ugly, and they're based on a very simple data schema.

00:11:53   And I don't have many pretty graphs or anything.

00:11:57   I had a couple of simple pie charts from some library I found three years ago.

00:12:00   And it's very, very simple analytics. Yours are even simpler, I think.

00:12:04   Yours are prettier than mine. But the way you can track stuff is,

00:12:08   if you make requests to your server, just be able to add a dictionary

00:12:13   and have the app add dictionary keys to it based on how many people used feature X today.

00:12:19   And you don't need to track very much. You can track as little as possible about people.

00:12:24   And you should track as little as possible about people.

00:12:26   Because what you're really looking for is large decision-making numbers like that.

00:12:31   You don't need to know, "How many people do I have in New York?"

00:12:35   You don't need to know that.

00:12:37   But you might need to know, "How many people do you have that have their phone locale set to English?"

00:12:42   Or another language or whatever. That's the kind of stuff you want to know.

00:12:45   You also might want to know, "How many people in the last week have used this feature that I think is really important?"

00:12:54   Because if it ends up being 1% of your user base, maybe that feature's not so important.

00:12:59   Maybe you need to devote time to other things.

00:13:01   I've learned all sorts of stuff from analytics.

00:13:04   Like various things like, I collect analytics on the percentage of various shared destinations that get used.

00:13:12   So I can tell things like, "Messages is my most commonly used shared destination."

00:13:18   It's not posting things publicly. It's sharing things privately.

00:13:21   That is by far the most popular shared destination for Overcast, both link and clip sharing.

00:13:27   And it's really useful to know that.

00:13:29   Because when I first designed clip sharing, I was prioritizing Instagram as like, "This is going to be where everyone shares these."

00:13:35   And that's why I made the vertical video and everything.

00:13:37   And yeah, it turns out almost nobody does that. And almost everyone's sharing things privately.

00:13:40   And so that's important information to learn about features and everything.

00:13:45   So I feel like data can help you.

00:13:48   Basic analytics like that about how many people are using these features, what's important, what's not.

00:13:52   I like things like, how many people who use Overcast even have an Apple Watch paired?

00:13:57   And how many of those have the app installed?

00:14:00   And then how many of those have the complication enabled?

00:14:03   That's really good information.

00:14:05   Because then that helps me allocate my resources to say what's actually important.

00:14:09   And then if I hear somebody saying, "Oh, I really want this feature X to be better."

00:14:16   But then I look and I see almost no one uses it.

00:14:19   Meanwhile, I have a problem that I need to solve on a different feature that I can see like 40% of my users use.

00:14:25   I should do that first. That's where I should put the priority.

00:14:28   So this is how I think it's important for developers to be able to back up our gut feelings, our anecdotes about what we see on Twitter or email and everything.

00:14:43   To be able to balance that out with something that's more neutral, that can more accurately help us distinguish what are the needs of our actual customers versus what are we just hearing about from our critics.

00:14:55   Yeah, I feel like too there's such a human element in this where I was just thinking about how disproportionately I tend to weight the feedback I get based on the medium by which I receive it.

00:15:11   Like, I get an, say I'm at WWDC talking to someone and they mention something that they want, or a frustration they have, or something that they would like to see in the app.

00:15:24   That will stick with me and become something that I have in my mind, "Oh, I need to do this."

00:15:30   Or even worse, if it's a friend or a family member or someone who I know and care about who talks about something and it's a feature that they want and they need or they care about.

00:15:39   I will weight that very high. Even though they, and it's like they're in my three buckets, they're part of my audience potentially.

00:15:49   That view is potentially not just representative of what would be good or beneficial for my customer base at large.

00:15:57   But, yes, and then the next level is maybe people who reach out via email or then people who reach out via Twitter or social media and whatever that might look like.

00:16:09   Or then you have maybe the App Store reviews is the lowest level of import there, impact that it has.

00:16:16   But it's just fascinating how the human impact of that can be so different. In my mind, if I get ten emails in a row of people saying this one thing they don't like,

00:16:29   my immediate feeling, when I start to emotionally feel like, "Oh man, nobody likes this feature. Everything's broken for everybody."

00:16:38   But then to your point, the important thing is to then remind myself, "This is ten people out of hopefully thousands or hundreds of thousands or whatever the customer base of your app is,

00:16:51   who are like you when counting this problem." And obviously there may be more people who have this share of that opinion.

00:16:59   But by and large, what I find is that the reality is the majority of people are fine and are happy and are often, I think, importantly too, is to remind myself that most of our customer bases use our apps in the most basic, straightforward way.

00:17:17   They use Overcast just to listen to podcasts. And they're not using any of its more sophisticated or fancy features. Or if they are, they're not really aware of why they're doing it. It's just someone recommended the app, they put it on their phone, or they searched podcast in the App Store and they saw it and downloaded it.

00:17:35   Or they just want to count their steps. And I can add features that may have benefit to some people, and that's great. But my core customer base, the people who ultimately, and probably most importantly, they're the people who are ultimately making my business viable, may not care about these features.

00:17:55   Awkwardly, we may never hear from the section of people who are most vital and most important for our app being viable long term and continuing our business being viable. We may never hear from them.

00:18:12   And I think it's just always that important thing to check myself. Do I want to do this or do I have this feeling because of someone who reached out to me in a very direct way? Or is this something that I'm basing, like you said, on analytics or on our own sense of design or those types of things that are much more intrinsic to our experience and to what we're trying to make?

00:18:36   Or are we just making emotional decisions? Because whenever I start to make things or make changes or decisions based on my critics or my audience, I find that more often than not, I'm into making a choice that is not necessarily bad, but is not necessarily optimal for my actual customer base.

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00:20:25   So one quick thing I wanted to add to what you were just saying. You mentioned your own inherent sense of design and priority as one of the factors you need to consider here.

00:20:35   I just wanted to plant the thought in our heads of there's a period of time when you're making the very first version of an app where you haven't heard feedback yet. So you've had effectively zero feedback. Maybe you might have run the idea by a few friends or maybe a few beta testers, but you've had effectively zero feedback.

00:20:55   You've made the app from nothing into the 1.0 without hearing from anybody. And people came to the app for that. Any app that has gotten traction, that has gotten a user base, has gotten that in large part because of decisions and feelings and skills that you put into it before you had any feedback from anybody.

00:21:18   So don't forget to also trust yourself and what you think is the right thing to do because a big part of why people are there in the first place is what you did before you heard from a single person.

00:21:30   That is a very good reminder. And I think it's the importance too of understanding that in many ways, in order to be a good developer who's making apps that ultimately have long-term success is you have to be your own customer.

00:21:48   You have to be in a position where you can make choices about what is good for the app and what will make the app better because if you aren't your own customer in that way and you start to be making decisions based on what other people are wanting, you lose focus.

00:22:04   You lose a sense of vision, you lose a sense of cohesiveness within your application and that becomes problematic. But I think it's a good reminder that the reason most people came to the app was because of what it was that you made, which is something intrinsic to you.

00:22:22   And hopefully the distinctiveness that you brought to the app is what's useful and what is important to your customers. So that's an important thing to do. And if you try and make an app based on random people yelling at you on the internet and responding to their feedback in that way, it's never going to go well and it's never going to go anywhere really, probably.

00:22:43   Right. And it's very important then to distinguish if you're hearing a certain type of criticism or request from a group of people, are they actually your customers or not? Because if you put something out there and it gets traction and it actually is developing a user base and somebody says, "Hey, I'm using this app. I love it."

00:23:07   Or whatever, "I use it every day. It would be a lot easier for me if you made this change." Or whatever. If somebody else says, "I would use your app if only it did this." The latter person doesn't use your app. They're not one of your customers.

00:23:23   And you have two very, very different needs here. One need is like you already have a certain number of customers and it would make their life better or they would like it a little bit better if change X happened. Another group says, "I'm not your customer."

00:23:38   But I would be, which by the way has another word inserted in it, what it really means is I might become your customer if you just did this thing I want. They're not your customers though. And it's a really tricky balance. You could argue like, "Why invest more time into pleasing people you already got?"

00:23:57   And you could say, "Don't I need to attract more customers?" But for people who are not your current customers, they've decided at that point not to use your app yet. And they're saying, "Well, I would change my mind if you did this thing."

00:24:10   That's a really weak input. It is an input you have to consider because it is useful to know why people choose not to use your app. But it's important to take only very high level lessons from those kind of requests. Don't get into all the nitty gritty and the specifics because chances are you're dealing with only high level problems at that point.

00:24:31   People aren't choosing not to use your app because the icon's orange, they don't like orange. You're never going to get those people. If it's small stuff like that. But if people are saying, "I didn't use your app because it's paid up front and that's too expensive for me." That's valuable input at least.

00:24:47   But it's really important to try to apply perspective to the kind of input you're getting from people who aren't even your customers.

00:24:56   Yeah. And I think to wrap this up is I think it is vitally important to understand what this Venn diagram looks like for you and for what it is that you're making. What is your customer base? And what is your audience? And who are the people who are your critics?

00:25:14   And to what degree do those circles overlap? Because the nature of what you're doing and what you're making will be very, very strongly impacted by that. The degree to which those overlap.

00:25:31   So if I'm an iOS developer and I'm making a tool for iOS developers, my audience, the people who might follow me or care about me from an iOS development perspective, who are interested in my thoughts on Swift or on the latest beta or whatever that might be.

00:25:45   Those people may actually be there in my customer base and those two things overlap dramatically. That's interesting and that's important to know that in some ways that's useful as a point of leverage for marketing your application, for initially trying to gain traction for it.

00:26:02   That if you have an audience for whatever it is, and in my case it's iOS development, but wherever it is you may have an audience for other reasons and being able to use that and leverage it, especially initially, is important.

00:26:15   But it's also important to understand that there's a very good chance that those two things are totally separate. And as a result, you need to not be making choices or thinking too much about the people that you interact with on a day-to-day basis.

00:26:31   If those people are not actually your customer base. And it's kind of a weird thing in some ways that I think that other than, I'm trying to think, I think Calzones is probably the app I've made that has the largest overlap between my audience and my customer base.

00:26:46   In the sense that it's a tool that is made that is used by office workers primarily who are involved in multinational development work or commercial work, which is a reasonable overlap with people who are iOS developers.

00:27:04   Those two things overlap dramatically. But all the rest of my apps, there's not a connection there. But the voices I keep hearing are from people who aren't my customers. And that's an important thing to remind myself on.

00:27:17   And right now, I think what I found is really reassuring is, as I'm scoping my choices for iOS 13 or watchOS 6 or whatever that might be, it is very important that I keep putting on my hat. Rather than thinking with my audience hat, my iOS developers, Apple nerd folks,

00:27:37   it's like, that's not the hat that is most interesting to wear when I'm thinking about planning features or prioritizing things. I should be focused on my customers who, for whatever that might be, and I have kind of like a vague sense of what that is based on just like the general feedback I get.

00:27:51   But if I base my choices on my customer base, I'm likely going to grow my customer base. And that's the important thing. That's the group of people that if they grow, my business grows and is important.

00:28:03   If I make choices that might please and encourage my audience, my audience might grow. Like, I may have more followers on Twitter or I may have more subscribers to my blog. But in many ways, that is lovely, but only for my ego.

00:28:17   It's nice to feel like you have a big voice and it's important. And that's great. But ultimately, that is probably not important for my business. It's useful, but I need to take care of my customers and not be making choices that are skewed by my audience.

00:28:33   So anyway, that was the thought that I had that I think is hopefully a useful one. And I think especially as you're starting out, you're trying to make something. It's like, understand what those three groups look like for you and in your life. And even just being aware of it.

00:28:47   I found in the last couple of weeks since I had this kind of realization of these distinct modes has been really helpful for me to just kind of understand and hopefully make more informed choices as a result.

00:28:59   And one little last thing I'll throw in here during our last 50 seconds of the episode is it's also important if you're doing something to satisfy one of those two groups that isn't your customers, make sure it's not something that will actually dis-satisfy your customers.

00:29:15   If I did everything that the critics asked me to do, the app would become something that my customers wouldn't like as much. It would be overly complicated, it would be finicky, it would be confusing, it would have a million settings. So that's another thing that, you know, I know this is a very last minute thing to shove in here, but you've got to really be careful of that too.

00:29:34   Absolutely.

00:29:35   Anyway, thanks for listening everybody and we'll talk to you in two weeks.

00:29:38   Bye.

00:29:39   Bye!

00:29:40   [