There's been some buzz lately about how Dell is trying to reinvent themselves as a user-driven company with their IdeaStorm program. Let me tell you why it's doomed.
IdeaStorm is a site where people can submit product ideas to Dell and others can vote on them. As of this writing, they had collected roughly 2,500 ideas and 150,000 votes. Sounds innovative, right? Sounds like Michael Dell has been been reading The Wisdom of Crowds and using social networking sites like Del.icio.us.
Paul Young at Product Beautiful has some good thoughts on the ways in which this idea can go wrong. But let me focus on the three key problems that will, I suspect, quickly make IdeaStorm into a tempest in a teapot.
1. Customers have no imagination
First, as you know if you read this blog, I approve of getting your customers involved in product development. The key, though, is knowing what techniques to use for what jobs. Surveys that measure the interest level among customers for certain features can be useful. (In fact, James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, would argue that the judgement of crowds when properly aggregated can be better than the judgement of a few experts.) But Dell is hoping for innovative product ideas from this process. As I have argued elsewhere, customers don't have a lot of imagination and just asking them what they want seldom produces good ideas.
Mostly what you get when you ask customers for their suggestions is requests for more of what they already get from you at no incremental cost, incremental improvements, and minor variations. The proof of this can already be seen in the most popular suggestions on Dell's site. 10 out of the top 15 suggestions are for bundling of Open Source software, 2 are for hardware add-ons, 1 is for better "design and form factor" (great idea!), another is for quieter computers, and the last is for better customer service.
2. Popularity contests don't make good business
There might be some innovative ideas buried in the data, given the sheer numbers. And using the crowd to sift through them might be a good idea. But Dell has again chosen the wrong tool. There's a reason we conduct elections by secret ballot and why the winners of the first few presidential primaries nearly always get the nomination. People's judgement is unduly influenced by the opinions of others. Once a few ideas become a little popular they will gain in momentum and stay at the top of the list.
3. Ask the right customers
The final problem is a mismatch of audiences. Dell is a mass market merchant selling to corporate, SOHO and home users. The overwhelming votes for Open Source software, though, are a strong indicator that the voters tend heavily toward techies.
Business Week certainly seems impressed with IdeaStorm, but I think Michael Dell has a lot more work to do before "Dell 2.0" is ready for market.