I want to first make clear that this is not a “how-to” article, it’s merely musings from a slightly disillusioned young designer after building dozens of products at both big companies and startups. There is plenty of product and design content out there, I’m just sharing my two cents on how to better understanding people and solve real problems.
Design conferences like to talk about empathy. With its many definitions, empathy universally means the act of coming to experience something as you think someone else does also commonly known as “standing in another man’s shoes”.
As designers, we want to understand what’s going on in the minds of others through an objective lens. We are here to examine the fuller context of what impacts someone’s life and decisions. This process takes a lot of time, practice, and patience. It’s incredibly difficult because we are humans and we are cursed with biases. You can’t simply put a user in a “persona” box, and bootstrap a fancy journey map thinking you now have completed the “understand your user” part of the playbook.
That’s why so many new product ideas in big companies didn’t end up shipping, and the number one reason why startups fail is that there’s no market demand. Even when we think we are empathizing, to truly understand people is extremely difficult, and the art of understanding them is not discussed enough.
Large companies create “tasks” and “user stories” to create a sense of productivity, but a lot of the times these optics are not leading to great products. They do have the resources to recruit people to talk to when conducting research studies, but when I sat in the research room at Facebook and observed people interacting with our new designs, a common response to them is “that looks cool”, and many interviewees are extremely distracted by their surroundings like a crying baby. It’s fair to say that conducting long sessions of studies is very costly and usually ends up with very few valuable insights.
Smaller companies, on the other hand, have limited resources and could afford some post-its. They tend to bootstrap someone else’s needs and wants on a couple diagrams. Doing this can lead to product decisions like: “the users must feel helpless and really want to talk to someone to solve their issues, but we don’t want have enough resources for customer service, so let’s put a chatbot on the home page.” Having a strong belief in the product you build is a double-edged sword, it provides you with the grit to move forward, but it exacerbates the confirmation bias when you draft research questions.
People like to be nice, so when a stranger respond to your questions, it’s very unlikely that they will tell you what they really want. That’s why essentially most motivational apps failed because you can’t rewire the human nature of being lazy. Everyone would tell you during a user research interview that they’d totally need some motivation to stay fit, but when they actually see that notification “time to stay fit!”; they’d pretend not to see that, and maybe even delete the app because it gets annoying.
People don’t want to exercise because it’s painful. People want to look in the mirror and find out how good they look. Sometimes they want to look like someone they see on Instagram. Few people will tell you that during a user research session.
So what should we do if people aren’t honest, and as makers we are so prone to our own biases? There are a couple of things that I find helpful, and I remind myself whenever I design products.
1) Are you aware of your biases?
I also picked out some common biases in designing products.
Bias from Incentives
This causes us to distort our thinking when it is in our own interest to do so. An example is when a designer truly believe that their design will improve the lives of their users. When I’m pitching my work, the pitching itself causes a very real bias in my own thinking.
We tend to most easily recall what is salient, important, frequent, and recent. It’s easy to recall the finding from the latest research studies and pivot product that way without taking a step back and examine such change in a greater context. This also leads to our tendency to stereotype our users and miss important nuances in their needs.
The tendency to Want to Do Something
Most humans have the tendency to need to act, even when their actions are not needed. Do you really need that redesign? or that promotion banner? or that chatbot? (I definitely have a thing with chatbots)
What we believe is what we choose to see. It is a deeply ingrained mental habit, both energy-conserving and comfortable, to look for confirmations of long-held wisdom rather than violations. This is probably the hardest bias to overcome. When we want a product or idea to succeed, we would catch all the evidence that it could succeed when it’s not working. Ouch!
2) Are you the user? If not, do you know them well?
Because of all the biases above, it’s really difficult to assume the needs of others when we haven’t experienced their joy and struggles. Therefore, it’s wise to design a product where you are the user or you are very familiar with the user. When building enterprise software, the product team can sometimes be too far removed from the real problem that the customers are facing. Finding a balance between fixing immediate pain points and driving forward product vision is the biggest challenge. Whenever there’s a conflict, it might actually present a great opportunity to dig deeper. This leads to my third question.
3) What aspect of human nature does this product address?
How can one make something for humans without understanding them? We all think we do, but due to the above biases, we often times have a hard time understand the incentives of others, especially the reality doesn’t align with our vision for the product.
One of the best ways to understand human nature is through film and literature. Reading about behavioral science and psychology works, but sometimes those black-and-white conclusions fail to capture the nuance and complexity of human motivations.
Another surprisingly helpful practice is learning how novelists or play writes construct characters for their books and films. Great TV shows like Game of Thrones and Mad Men have complex characters — we don’t simply like or dislike these character, we simply find ourselves and others in them. Their struggles and motivations are not apparent in the beginning, but slowly reveal themselves through irrationalities, veiled by their appearances and social affiliations. Understanding people on a deep level is the most spiritual part of crafting a product, and the “move fast and break things” approach rarely creates a meaningful and sustainable experience.
It’ll only get easier and easier to create a product, and the cost of continuing and undoing becomes very low. It’s okay to pivot many times and to start over. I just hope that the next time we start over, we take it a bit slower, and we move forward with more patience. Listen more attentively, and keep people in our hearts, not on post its.