Good products have people complain about everything

8 Aug

There’s a very loud paradox that I noticed recently, and which has been illustrated by most cameras released in the last two years. The simple gist of it is this: If you’re a company selling a reasonably complex product or service, and your customers are complaining about just one thing, then you’ve probably messed up. And it doesn’t matter how loudly people are complaining, but if the complaints are undiversified, you’ve probably gone wrong. Let me illustrate.

Nikon released a retro-looking full-frame stills camera with a significant “something new is coming, but we won’t tell you what it is” marketing campaign. The name tickled people’s imaginations, and there was a brief hiatus, a moment of suspense, before people realised that the camera had one big and, to many, unexplainable flaw. Nikon had decided to deliberately remove video as a feature. Yup, no video of any kind on the Nikon Df. It turns out that people are quite happy to work around the limitations of a camera. Even if video had been given a back-seat, customers would have far preferred that over not ever having the option. People quibbled over some other minor points, but that was more of a murmur in the woods compared to the video complaint. The Nikon Df tanked so hard that just over half a year after its introduction, many retailers no longer list it.

Now, it’s difficult to compare across product categories, but I’ll try anyway. Staying with Nikon, the Nikon 1 V3 had a number of complaints – no hotshoe, no EVF included in the default bundle in some localities, image quality not much better than predecessor, etc. etc. I predict it will do very well.

I don’t know whether this is a basic human psychological phenomenon, but it seems that it’s easier to make a bunch of smaller compromises than one big one. The Nikon D600 essentially became unsellable when it was discovered that the shutter would throw oil onto the sensor, gradually obscuring the image with little black spots as you kept using it. Nikon had to make a big turn-around and run a costly repair-or-replace recall programme. If there were any prior complaints about the D600, they became insignificant when the oil splatter issue was discovered.

So I’m wondering if there are a number of brands that do very well because they don’t listen to all the little complaints. Pentax has resisted calls for an articulated display on the back of its cameras, as well as those for a touchscreen. Every single time in the last two years that a Pentax DSLR has been released, these topics have come up, and the cameras seem to sell happily in spite of it. It’s fairly clear that there is some threshold that determines whether an issue becomes a product-killing complaint or not, and it would be interesting to discover what this threshold is. Fujifilm’s X system lenses and camera bodies were not optically stabilised when the system launched, but this did not stop the success of that system. Sigma’s DP cameras to this day have no stabilisation but have found a dedicated following. (In both cases, it can be argued that not having stabilisation is a good thing. Unstabilised lenses can be calibrated more accurately and will resist decalibration for longer. Tamron for a while carried VC and non-VC versions of its lenses alongside each other, and the non-VC lenses would outcompete their VC brethren in certain sharpness tests.) Some cameras have terrible buffer performance, but it doesn’t kill their sales.

 

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