14 Dec 2012

Four Reasons to Listen to Dissenting Voices

Nobody likes to listen to criticism. Perhaps that’s why some people will try to shut it out, or even shout down dissent before it has a chance to develop. But that’s a potentially fatal mistake for any company or field. Putting your fingers in your ears and saying “la la la” is not going to make anything go away.

I was reminded of this rather forcefully while working on an article for Dev Hardware this week. I covered a talk given by online feminist activist Anita Sarkeesian about her experience running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to create a few YouTube videos covering the portrayal of women in video games. Literally thousands of men who apparently thought of video games as their own little boys’ club – and her as some kind of interloper – subjected her to a heinous online assault. By the way, I highly recommend checking out the video of her talk, which I link to in the article; it’s only eleven minutes long, and like all TED talks, highly informative and entertaining.

Those overgrown boys didn’t manage to silence her, though; in fact, many others, who were outraged by the way she was being treated, came forward to more than fund her project. She raised 25 times the amount of money that she had originally asked for, and was thus able to expand the scope of her project. While I think it’s wonderful that Sarkeesian’s story has a happy ending, it brings up the point of how challenging it can be to get a dissenting view past a hardened resistance to that opinion.

And yet, if you’re running a business, you absolutely must keep yourself open to other points of view. Do not automatically dismiss someone else’s opinion because it disagrees with yours – especially if it’s backed up by facts. I hope I don’t need to tell you how important it is to listen to those dissenting opinions if they’re coming from your customers! Besides, you stand to gain a great deal from listening to voices from, shall we say, unusual quarters.

A Fresh Perspective

One of my favorite stories involving the need to listen to fresh voices concerns a new smartphone about to be released. I apologize for not remembering all of the details; the product was apparently far enough along in beta that the company was previewing it at a conference.

The team that worked on the phone was all male. As they were presenting the phone to a small audience, one of the team members noted that there was some loss of signal reception when the phone was in a briefcase, but since most people wore their phones on their belts, they didn’t think this was an issue.

One woman in the audience stood up and said “I normally carry my phone in my purse. Will it be affected by this issue?” The presenter was brought up short – and didn’t have an answer for her.

By listening to these kinds of questions, you can find out how your customers and potential customers are using your product. You can look at it with new eyes and discover new avenues to investigate. Which brings me to my next point:

Becoming Aware of New and Different Needs

I’m going to address something that readers of this blog should be quite familiar with: keyword research. Everyone who hopes to gain traffic from Google needs to do it; what’s more, you often need to do it more than once. If you study the searches that bring users to your website (as well as you can these days), you may find some “dissenting voices” there as well.

What do I mean by “dissenting voices” in this case? You may discover that some visitors came to your website using search terms you may never have thought to optimize for. They have needs that they need to fill, but they probably think of them using different language than you use. It could be something as simple as using different terms to describe the same device, or it could be that they expect your products to feature different capabilities, or it could be something even more complicated.

The point is, every searcher that lands on your website is looking to fill a particular need. If you can fill that need in a reasonable way, you should consider it; nobody wants to turn away paying business! But you might try to present it in their language. After all, they’re telling you exactly what they need, if you’ll just listen.

Discovering Problems That Need Solving

Sometimes you may want to specifically solicit those dissenting voices. One of my favorite articles about SEO proposed putting websites through something called “the mom test.” It’s an informal usability test that a company might employ if their website experiences a lot of bounces. The basic idea is to set someone’s mom up with a browser and have her try to perform various tasks on the site.

The idea is to see what she’s doing, what she’s trying to do, and how she goes about it. Above all, it’s important to keep your mouth shut and listen to what she tells you – and not just because “you’re supposed to listen to your mother”! If she’s having a hard time navigating your website, chances are your other visitors are as well.

This brings up a general rule for listening to criticism and dissenting voices: if one person raises an issue, they probably aren’t the only one experiencing it. Yes, you need to evaluate it, but don’t assume it isn’t a problem. Never dismiss criticism out of hand, or – and this one is important – assume that just because the criticism isn’t coming from a typical source, that it’s invalid.

Ripping Off Your Field-Specific Blinders

I’m going to blow my own horn for just a moment. I’ve gained a certain amount of respect on the SEO Chat forums over the years, despite neither being an SEO nor ever performing anything I think of as search engine optimization. I’ve read a lot about the subject, though. I once asked someone in the community why they valued my opinion, and they told me that I didn’t have “SEO blinders” on, so I brought a fresh view to the topic.

In our careers, we often surround ourselves with people in the same field, to the point of not being able to see how those OUTSIDE the field view it. The ramifications of this can be painful to your bottom line. Consider the jargon we all use; how will potential customers respond when they hear you effectively speaking in tongues?

By not paying attention to criticism, or at least hearing the opinions expressed outside your field, you open yourself and your company up to losing customers and business – which will gladly transfer their loyalty to those who WILL pay attention to them.