Demystifying the process of building awesome products — Part 1

Composite Song Dynasty depictions of Yu the Great and the Yellow River. (National Palace Museum/PD-Art;Beijing Palace Museum/PD-Art)

A story about an emperor

There was once an emperor in ancient China who attracted many wise people to his court in order to define the future of the land. This court members competed for his attention by providing magnificent ideas, incidentally also bringing trade and profit to their county and friends.

The emperor bestowed his consideration on one court member after another, intrigued with each person’s idea when it matched his desires exactly and seemed clear and risk-free.

One member did not present any ideas, but stood day and night in front of the emperor listening to his visions of prosperity for his people and production from the land. The others shouted him for his lack of inventiveness and warned him that he would lose his position within the empire.

One afternoon, the court and the emperor were discussing on the subject of building a structure that would reach into the heavens, taller than any other within the land. Court members were arguing about how to engineer the foundation and how they might build each level in order to support the next.

To the surprise of everybody in the room, the quiet member spoke up:

  • The purpose of this building is to allow the emperor to be closer to the heavens and to symbolise his glory and wisdom.
  • Yesss… everyone agreed.

Then the member continued:

  • The emperor’s wisdom has provided a fertile land for his people who grow in numbers. Let him extend the land which is fertile and increase the magnitude of trade by constructing the largest canal and reservoir system for irrigation and transportation.

The room was silent, shocked by the mundane idea. But a smile appeared slowly across the face of the emperor as he fought through what the idea would mean for the prosperity of his people. He pointed to the member and said:

  • This is what we would build instead.

The morale of the story is that everyone wants to prove their worth, impress others or fix things. Within all sorts of organisations, we find courts men that are thinking how they can achieve this by trying to convince leaders or team members to listen to them. Most of them don’t realise that they spend zero time understanding and listening to what makes people tick.

When they do, they find that there are 50 reasons why someone might do something and decide not to invest time in resolving all of them. The most common practice used is to split them in two groups and improve later down the road. In most cases, it turns out that if you explore all of these 50 reasons there are more connections between them than you would expect. But this all starts with listening.

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How can listening help me build better products?

Anytime there isn’t alignment, there is friction. These causes wear and tear on people — both the ones who work with and the ones you serve.

People try to use metrics to increase their confidence in decisions because numbers seem to provide more trust to stakeholders and colleagues. I’ve also found that researchers often fall into the trap of stopping at the first validation of a feature while conducting research. This is bad because they miss on comprehending the human side of the picture.

When you act solely on numerical data, you find out only what happened, when and how, thus making it hard to understand why. The story of why is to find out the purpose of an attitude or a behaviour.

For example, why do people open a savings account? While some of them are doing it to buy a car, others are trying to fulfil a dream from childhood like going on an archaeological trip. The first relies on practical and cultural reasons, while the latter on a unfulfilled passion.

Great design can’t be achieved without using both qualitative and quantitative types of research. You must be sure that you are heading in the right direction. Also, the human side of the picture is an underlying part of creativity. It defines areas that you can explore in order to achieve the goals of all the parties involved — both users, technological partners and business stakeholders.

Creativity can’t be forced only with a rational numerical path because it is a well documented right brain activity. Even though you might create an awesome feature from time to time, most of them will be like a painting with only one colour. They will satisfy the needs of only one group.

But qualitative and quantitative studies aren’t different sides of the same spectrum. They are two different spectrums.

Quantitative research measures the numerical side. Its two opposites of the spectrum are estimates (e.g. User satisfaction) and detailed calculations (e.g. Task Completion).

Qualitative studies represent patterns in data often in the form of words. The two sides of its spectrum are guesses (e.g. desires that people state within an interview in which they just imagine the features) and detailed depictions (e.g. feedback provided after conducting a user testing session).

Besides this two spectrums mentioned above, we also have the emotional spectrum and the demographic one. This being said, I hope it becomes a little clear that by using only one of them you expose yourself to huge risks.

So how far can we go with our research in order to understand peoples intentions? Well, the first level that we must surpass is, of course, the surface – things like words, feelings or actions. Then we go down a few levels to principles, reasoning, patterns of actions while at the bottom reaching our ibjective – the purpose.

Although there are many tools and methods to achieve this, I shall share them in the second part of this article alongside how to integrate them into a development sprint. Until then, I hope I’ve sparked your curiosity around the benefits of listening.

If you enjoyed this article leave me your thoughts and feedback with a few friendly claps 👏🏻. This will tell me to write more like it in the future. Best regards!