Twitter Evolves and Grows Successful by Listening to Customers

What started only two years ago as a messaging service with few bells and whistles has evolved into a company with worldwide recognition, millions of Tweeters and the fans who read their tweets. Twitter founders, Evan Williams and Biz Stone, had the business savvy to outsource ideas on how to grow and improve their service to the people who use it on a daily and hourly basis. The company monitors how users use the service and which ideas become popular. Then company engineers transform these ideas into features.

The company has announced that two new features will be rolled out sometime in the next several weeks called Lists and Retweets from users’ ideas.

“Twitter’s smart enough-or lucky enough-to say, ‘Gee, let’s not try to compete with our users in designing this stuff, let’s outsource design to them,’ ” said Eric von Hippel, head of the innovation and entrepreneurship group at the Sloan School of Management at MIT and author of the book “Democratizing Innovation.”

Professor von Hippel said that economists have thought that the people making products and running the companies are natural sources for new ideas and innovations. However, technology companies have turned that model upside-down successfully by allowing others to innovate for them. This works primarily because the Internet lets people around the world share ideas in real time and software allows users to design new products inexpensively. A good example of this is photo-sharing giant Flickr that started out as a small part of a game. When Flickr founders discovered that the photo-sharing aspect was more popular than the game, they shed the game and focused on building Flickr.

This shift favors young start-up companies as older companies tend to rely on proven ideas and techniques, and the structures of their companies may discourage outside-the-box thinking intentionally or unintentionally. Nevertheless, that may be changing somewhat as older companies now try to emulate the methods of new companies after watching how new companies grow to success. One good example is Ford Motor Company-it noticed that users were modifying the voice-activated entertainment and GPS system, Sync, and so invited college students to create new features for the system.

Another company embracing new sources of ideas is Lego. Lego created a site called Designs by ME where fans can use Lego design software to create new models for pieces. Lego then sells the designs that save them money by outsourcing design costs to users.

Twitter expands its possibilities of the Next Big Idea by using ideas from software engineers who create twitter apps. Twitter bought a search engine start-up called Summize that created an app allowing users to search tweets. Now the search function is a foundation feature of the company that signed lucrative search partnerships with Google and Microsoft recently.

“Most companies or services on the Web start with wrong assumptions about what they are and what they’re for,” Williams said. “Twitter struck an interesting balance of flexibility and malleability that allowed users to invent uses for it that weren’t anticipated.”

The Lists feature allows users to create lists written by movie stars, professional athletes, politicians, etc., for new Twitter users to determine who to follow and help them filter streams of posts to suit their interests. The idea for this feature stemmed from ideas from software developers and users who were confused on how to use the services.

Retweets allows users to send a post written by another Twitter to their own asset of followers, which is already being done, but the new feature improves upon it by removing redundant posts, clarifying the source of the post and preventing users from modifying another poster’s words.

“You get a bunch of users interacting and it’s hard to predict what they’re going to do,” Williams said. “We say, ‘Why are people using this and how could we make that better?’ “

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