If you had asked me a few years ago if there was a useful, symbiotic relationship to be had between a producer and consumer of news or electronics, it would've been hard not to laugh in your face. As rude as that seems, at the time part of my job description involved sifting through the dozens of racist, hate-filled comments that were obnoxiously posted to the Chicago Tribune's blogs on a daily basis. If I was even able to find 5 in 10 people with a cogent thought that didn't involve multiple four-letter words, it felt like a successful day.
If you asked me that same question now, however, I'd have a much different opinion. As online commenting systems and digital delivery mature together, the potential grows rapidly for a useful dialogue to open up between a developer, who wants most of all to increase profits (usually done by pleasing their customers), and the consumer who wants a product most useful to them.
Sure, problems still exist in this realm, particularly in the Web journalism world, where so often readers begin to snipe at each other in comment sections rather than meaningfully address an author's points, but even some online reporting commenting systems have come a long way from the cesspool of their birth. The Gawker websites come to mind immediately when I think of a community of users that actually enhances the content on the website rather than detract from it. Gawker's Deadspin, a site that takes a lighter look at sports than, say, ESPN, is nearly as well known for its ribald users who police each other into trying to be funny and relevant, rather than playing on the stale, derogatory sports clichés of two goons shouting each other into oblivion.
But the area of digital delivery with the greatest potential for growth I’ve seen exists not in a reporter-reader realm but the developer-user realm of apps and gaming software. Recently, I reviewed the ChargePoint iPhone app. At the time I walked away unimpressed, and basically wrote that while the promise of the app was intriguing, the developers failed to deliver on it in any meaningful way.
I didn't stay up late one night wondering if my words had been heard, and didn't lose any sleep weeks later when I hadn't been contacted about the review. In the more than 10 years I've been writing, I can only recall a handful of times someone has responded directly to a criticism I've leveled.
Imagine my surprise then, when through a roundabout connection, I was contacted by one of ChargePoint's developers. The developers had read the review and took my critique to heart. The email he wrote me was polite, sincere, and most important of all, filled with a list of improvements ChargePoint had made. I was blown away. Not that someone would fix this app, because it did need it and as an iPhone user, I'm certainly aware that apps are updated and improved on a daily basis. What surprised me most was that ChargePoint's developers sought me out to show that they had listened to what I wrote. That, in essence, they agreed with what I saw were problems and made the changes of their own volition.
The changes they made were meaningful, and they've given an app that I wouldn't recommend to anyone much more value. I'm much more likely now to recommend ChargePoint to anyone who asks me about a useful electric car app. But that's just the smaller scale of what has the potential to be a much bigger boon for the consumer and developer alike.
If developers of iPhone apps can utilize user feedback and reviews to improve upon their product with such a short turnaround time, it could change the relationship between users and developers for the better. Think of it like those Windows 7 ads, where users claim that Windows 7 was their idea because they wished it had "X" improvement, and now it does. But imagine getting that improvement in a few weeks of development, rather than the several years it takes for a new operating system to come out. That's something truly remarkable.
This does, of course, leave developers open to even more criticism. Developers of the Playstation 3 video game series MLB: The Show have made it a point for several years to frequent a particular forum ripe with serious baseball/videogame fanatics in order to solicit feedback for the series. They've even flown out members of the forum as part of a "Community Day" initiative to basically help with bug testing. Who better to test for things than guys who'll spend the next year playing the game non-stop, after all? The downside to this outstanding customer service is that less gracious forum members often become agitated with the developers that frequent the forum for not fixing what they feel is a deal breaker for the game. Truly, no good deed goes unpunished.
Aside from expecting too much too soon, there is little but upside to the developer/user interaction that is quickly developing across the Internet. Better products that sell more units benefit developers' bottom lines, and the user benefits by feeling like they've had a hand in making something better than it otherwise would have been. Creating a slight sense of ownership that previously did not exist. That kind of interaction is truly priceless.