People don’t know how to ask for what they really want David 16 Sep 2005

9 comments Latest by Joe

Kathy Sierra has a wonderful story about horse-trainer Pat Parelli and his approach to workshops and training material. Commended on how well they were able to process user feedback, Pat responded that they really didn’t do that too much. Their drive to improve came 20% from direct feedback, 80% from within the team:

We changed our entire program because WE knew we could do better. Because WE were still frustrated that people weren’t learning quickly enough or progressing through the higher levels as well as we thought they could. People still weren’t having the kind of relationship with their horse that we knew they could have, even though our students were delighted with the progress they were making. So we changed it all.

Nobody knows what they really want before they get it. Not consumers, not conference goers, not programmers, and certainly not clients. Delivering greatness requires you to let go of the safety in mediocrity where you just do as you’re told. (But sure, it’s also a gamble, so don’t come crying if you’re fired for trying — but do drop a note if it worked out ;))

9 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Aaron Blohowiak 16 Sep 05

And people also don’t know what they have until its gone. This is also kind of a throwback to your post about users asking for multiple people to be responsible for tasks in basecamp.

Alipasha 16 Sep 05

No Objection, just a variation:

Personally, I believe that people do exactly know WHAT they want in terms of the VALUE they are looking to gain. What they do not exactly know is HOW to get what they want.

So People (we all) make assumptions about SHOULDS and SHOULD NOTS regarding the tools that help them (us) achieve their (our) goal. Of course, these assumptions often fail.

The best explanation I found for this mental process comes from Edward De Bono. He explains that the creative idea is logical in hindsight, but not necessarily in foresight. You make assumptions, you go on to realize them and if you fail, you change your assumptions and try a different approach. Once you have found what you were looking for, then suddenly everything makes sense and you ask yourself: “Damn, Why didn’t I think about that in the first place?”
Interestingly, that also explains why it is easy to be Monday morning quarterbacks! Read De Bono’s Articles and books on this subject, they are all fascinating.

What I take from this is that in foresight I cannot definitely tell whether the customer/client is right or wrong with her approach; as less as I could tell whether I would be right or wrong with my approach. Since there is obviously no need to get into an “I am right, you are wrong” debate, I might as well just start with the SIMPLEST approach and move from there through iteration after iteration until it all makes sense, so at the end I would ask myself:

Damn, Why didn’t I think about that in the first Place?

Steve Portigal 16 Sep 05

This seems to be the frequent argument against any form of user research/market research/call-it-what-you want —- the presumption that all one simply does is ask what is needed and then insert that feature directly into the solution.

The cliched iceberg model, where 2/3 are below the surface, applies here. You can easily see what people do, you can ask them what they say (or what they want) but you need to dive deeper to get at what things really mean. It takes some specific processes to get at underlying motivations, belief structures and other more complex understandings that are not obvious. It’s an interferntial and interpretive process; not the least is figuring out what to do with that information and how to apply it to the deisgn of something new.

So, I absolutely agree, but want to caution about where it can lead…

Mark Sigal 16 Sep 05

My only wrinkle on this point is that in my experience when you ask customers what they want, you get one type of answer, and it is usually an abstract “wish list” that doesn’t tie back to a core job that they are hiring your offering for, it is more of a brainstorming type of wish.

By contrast, when you walk into a customer or prospect with clear assertions of what the core problem you are trying to address, how you are going to address it and why you think that it aligns well with your understanding of their needs in terms of outcomes, the customer will always tell you they want something a little to the left or right but the feedback will be relative to an anchored position, which makes it highly actionable.

I have used this model in product management across a lot of different segments and found it to work really well.

Al Chang 17 Sep 05

Well, the users are certainly not going to design it for us. I used to call this the “laser printer problem”.

Back in the ‘86 or so, if you ran the focus groups (and they didn’t do that much of it back then), all the regular humans would have told you they wanted some variation on a faster dot matrix printer (or faster daisy wheel printer if they wanted ‘quality’.) And cheaper please. Virtually every one of ‘em. When you’re looking at devices that basically operated like a glorified automated mechanical typewriter, the last thing a guy off the street wouuld be visualizing into existance is using an expensive laser fusing toner onto paper to image a high resolution bitmap onto a page in order to accomplish the same thing at twice the price (but faster and with a lot of benefits when you burst into an era of computers with bitmap vs. character-based displays).

Just like how anyone can complain about the little bits of what’s wrong with a movie (i’d like the main character to be “funnier”), it’s not like more than a handful of people can actually write a sucessful integrated whole. Users aren’t designers, engineers, or screenwriters. They’re the jokers who paid their money and want to enjoy their movie. It’s our job to listen to the feedback, figure out how to create a show to keep ‘em laughing and cryin’. How’s that for mixing metaphors at 3am. :-).

Jens Meiert 17 Sep 05

This assumes people know what they want. Ain’t it just the other way around, that people rather know what they do not want?

Charlie Triplett 18 Sep 05

It is wonderful to watch clients come with fairly low expectations, or the wrong expectations, and build a relationship whereby they come to the point of essentially saying “You know us, we trust you, take care of our needs.”

You don’t get there by just doing as you’re told. You get there by leading the client with honesty. That’s not just getting real, that should be thought of as being a professional.

The clients with which that approach doesn’t work aren’t going to be clients very long. They will always be dissatisfied in some way, be it the solution or the price, and they’ll find another vendor.

I mostly design screen printed graphics. I try to raise my clients’ expecations every time I work a design for them. Otherwise, it gets boring rather quickly.

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