Assuming vs. listening: Effectively listening to users’ feedback — part 2

Getting users’ feedback is essential for designing and building great products that better meet their needs. In my article “Listening vs. hearing: Effectively listening to users’ feedback”, I illustrated what effective listening is and why it’s so important. To describe my notion in few words, I’d say that having conversations with people who use our products, yet not being able to understand the meaning of their message and the intention behind their words, means doing lousy work.

In that article, I briefly mentioned the topic of making assumptions. Making assumptions — or avoiding making assumptions — while listening to users’ feedback is a major element of understanding what they’re saying.

We naturally tend to make assumptions about, well, almost anything. We make assumptions about what other people think or do, completely sure this is THE truth — not being aware of the fact that it’s an outcome of the way we see the world.

Obviously, when we start to work on a new product or feature, we lay some initial assumptions: who is going to be using this, what do they need, how do they work, which solution would best meet their needs, and so on. Similar to a scientific experiment, where we initially specify some assumptions that we test later, when working on a new product or feature, we should carefully test the assumptions we set in the beginning.

One way to validate our initial assumptions is to collect users’ feedback. However, doing it the wrong way, i.e., by making assumptions about feedback given to us, might cause us to harm both the product and the business.

Making assumptions is actually making up parts of the picture

Why do we make assumptions?

Our brain uses many hacks, one of which is the tendency to fill in gaps of knowledge by making assumptions. Our need to rationalize and justify everything in our lives is profound. We feel an urge to understand and explain everything to feel a sense of safety and control. Life brings out many questions and dilemmas that require answers and resolutions, so having immediate answers in mind makes us feel secure.

This unconscious process becomes a habit that we exercise in many aspects of our lives. We do it fast and often, not being aware of it at all.

We make assumptions when people aren’t saying anything. We also make assumptions when people are saying things.

We often tend not to ask others to explain or clarify what they mean, so we interpret what we hear while believing it’s the truth. We stick to our assumptions and firmly defend them, again, to feel secure (even though this sense of security has no solid ground).

We make assumptions, so what?

Making assumptions while listening to users’ feedback might unconsciously lead us to understand the feedback in a wrong way. As a result, we might implement wrong concepts, features, or functionality. We might set the wrong strategy, which will seriously affect the course of our product.

Being unaware of this phenomenon captures us in a false sense of certainty about our strategy or concept. After all, we’ve done our research. We’ve collected users’ feedback. We’re not aware that our minds made up some parts of the puzzle.

Imagine you’re working on a new application that enables users to edit and share marketing-oriented video movies. As part of the preliminary research, you are talking to potential users — one of them specifically loves to share videos he creates. You’re asking him questions about the way he does things, tools he’s using, his workflows, preferences, and so on. However, you are not further investigating how this person shares marketing videos, assuming he uses a marketing automation platform. Apparently, once the editing part is completed, the person usually uploads his videos to YouTube, and only then does he share it via both social media and marketing automation platforms. Offering a built-in function of sharing videos directly from the new application means changing the way our potential user works. Since people don’t like to change the way they work, this one requires extra care, i.e., a lot of research and testing. Taking extra care, not making assumptions.

How to avoid making assumptions

Like any other skill, we can evolve our ability to listen effectively, while avoiding making assumptions. It’s about communicating transparently.

Here are some recommendations:

  • Raise awareness. Becoming familiar with our natural tendency to make assumptions is a start. Starting now, pay attention and identify in real-time when you make assumptions.
  • Realize that not knowing is OK. You cannot know everything. It’s fine to ask for an explanation, more details, or examples when you don’t understand what you’ve been told. It doesn’t mean you’re stupid. You’d better ask and learn than keep yourself in the dark, not knowing.
  • Same goes for not understanding. Keep asking until you get it.
  • Once you think you understand, validate that you’ve got it right. This one is super tricky because we’re under the impression of understanding and alignment, while this might not be the case. You can do it by asking open questions: “What do you mean…?”, “Can you elaborate on…?”, “Can you specify…?”, “How do you do…?”, “Do you have an example for…?”
  • Communicate explicitly. Ask clear questions. Say — don’t imply — what you need to know. Be polite, yet clear.
  • Be patient.

We see the world as we are, and we assume everybody else sees it the same way. Making assumptions while listening to users’ feedback might enlarge our knowledge gaps and shift us far away from the original intention of the speaker, which can lead us to set a wrong vision for the product and evidently harm the business.

Assumptions are unopened windows that foolish birds fly into, and their broken bodies are evidence gathered too late.” — Bryan Davis

Don’t let your product be that bird; develop your skills to listen effectively.

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Soft skills are the key ingredient to become an above average professional. Developing soft skills will amplify your professional value and boost your becoming a master. Go for it, starting now!

UX leader : Mentor : Personal life coach : Biophysicist. Always moving forward, constantly challenging myself to go down the rabbit hole to grasp the unknown.

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