The right kind of customer
May 5th, 2013 by ravi

The right kind of customer

I was a very early adopter of Instapaper and an ardent promoter of it to friends and acquaintances. When people complained about the clutter on websites, I would express mock incredulity that in 2010 they were still reading web pages in their native ad-infested homes or bookmarking them to their browser, bookmarking service or in some strange instances Facebook[?!], for later reading. Not using Instapaper (or Readability) seemed masochistic.

Instapaper was (is) noteworthy for other reasons as well. It was near ubiquitous (with a bookmarklet and web interface for the desktop and an affordable iOS app), clean and perhaps most important, its sole proprietor, Marco Arment, seemed to have the right ideas (competitors are yet to implement one of the most useful features of Instapaper: the ability to save an article to Evernote).

And yet, in the last few months I have been weaning myself off Instapaper and moving to competitor Readability. That Readability comes with a cleaner and more sophisticated interface than Instapaper on the web, in embedded mode, and the mobile app, is one small reason for this change. A host of other factors — such as Marco’s shift to the misguided idea of “email address as identity” and his confusing rollout of this change (which mysteriously caused sign-in using my login identity to stop working in the mobile app), or the discontinuation of subscription to other users — pushed me over the edge.

Arment will not miss me and I think that’s quite the way it should be. What he writes with regard to customer satisfaction may be good advise:

No matter what you make or how much you charge, some people will find things to complain about. If you drop your app’s price all the way down to free, people will still complain — just not about the price. They’ll move on to the features, the implementation, the design, the updates, the way you look, or what kind of dog you have. They’ll complain about every facet of your app, and then they’ll complain about unrelated topics just to pile on. They’ll say they use your app every day and love it, then give it a two-star rating until you add their pet feature. They’ll drop you from five stars to one star after an update that broke their edge case, then never come back to update that review after you fix it. […]

You will never please everyone. You will never win that battle.

But I wonder if there is a danger in Arment mixing in cranky ranters — the types who leave 1 star ratings on review sites because of a pet peeve, who cannot be satisfied or won over because they have no interest in that at all — with customers who have a divergent interest in the app.

The story goes that when famed designer Dieter Rams was asked if he did consumer research he replied “Never! We were out to change the world”. Consumer research is a bit different from consumer feedback but I sense a tendency today to take this line with regard to any interaction with customers. All feedback, whether it is about the “kind of dog you have” or about the working or future of a feature, are perceived as “complaints”.

Arment’s words are good psychological reinforcement (“illegitimi non carborundum” and all that), but I think for an app developer trying to reach the sort of success that Arment rightfully enjoys, drawing the right distinctions between customers might be valuable.


All of which reminds me, Instapaper seems to automatically recharge the subscription fee to my credit card every three months. This action is not clearly specified in the subscription page on the Instapaper site, something I had pointed out in email to Marco. I never heard back. It probably landed in his Spam folder… or perhaps he took it as a comment about his dog!

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