Most users are bad users

As this is Bastille Day, I’ll start with a quick story about revolutionary France.
 In the spring of 1793, France had been in the throes of revolution for almost four years and it was struggling to conceive of a proper form of government for itself now that King Louis XIV had been deposed. Unlike the Americans, the French revolutionary leadership did not have the luxury of almost a decade of peace and quiet under the Articles of Confederation to help them work out how their new government should be structured — they had, perhaps unwisely, not only started a war with the Austrians and Prussians, but had pushed some of the more rural departments of France into violent revolt. In the midst of this turmoil, it was decided that a Committee of Public Safety was needed, that it be given extraordinary internal and foreign powers, that it be composed of only a dozen or so men, and eventually that it be led by a man named Maximilian Robespierre.
 This is perhaps one of the most ultimately ill-fated but clearest expression of the idea that just men are able to wield power justly. In the midst of the greatest existential crisis in French history, France’s republican leaders defaulted to a common syllogism — “I am politically virtuous, and I am just like all other men, therefore all men are politically virtuous.”
 There is a similarly large but diametrically opposed view of political affairs that found elegant expression only 6 years before the Reign of Terror, albeit thousands of miles away. In Federalist №10, James Madison discussed the idea of factions, or groups of people attempting to claim political power for selfish gain at the expense of others or of the state. Implicit in this idea was a similar syllogism, expressed just as powerfully, but with entirely different implications — “Men are generally selfish, and political leaders are men, therefore our political leaders will be generally selfish.”
 If we are to judge the adequacy of these logical constructions by their effects, you have on the one hand the Reign of Terror and the decapitation of thousands of people, the rise of Napoleon, Europe-wide war, and the restoration of the French king on the one hand; and a 228-year old republican government on the other. Insert joke here.
 What does all of this have to do with software product management?
 This story, and the lessons of political and social theory, are critically important today because the dominant syllogism in product management is something like “I am a thoughtful user of products, and I am just like other people, therefore other people are thoughtful users of my product.”
 The implications of this are clear and almost to innumerable to cite in discussions of effective product development in the media and among product teams, and almost all of it comes from that canonical startup text “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries with its focus on “getting out of the building” and talking to customers. (Note: Despite this post I am a big fan of the book and recommend it to many people)
 Though to my knowledge it is not explicitly addressed, implicit in Lean Startup and in the many, many other writings on user research and engagement is the same idea expressed by the men who voted in favor of forming France’s Committee of Public Safety — that people are thoughtful, virtuous, and altruistic, and that we can therefore rely on them to do the right thing when the situation calls for it — either to protect our political liberties or to give us good product feedback.
 I will instead posit that users are more like Madison’s ideas of men — perhaps thoughtful, virtuous, and altruistic in moments; but at most times and in most situations decidedly less so. This general model has much more support in recent political and economic theory, including in excellent books like Thinking Fast and Slow and Democracy for Realists.
 Our product team is currently building out a new and disruptive product that we anticipate will dramatically improve on the current experience of our target users. That means we engage with users and their organizations deeply — across our product team, we probably spend 5–10 hours every week talking with users about their current experience, asking them about their common needs and tasks, and testing new concepts and capabilities with them (more on this process in a separate post). As a result, we’ve engaged with hundreds of individual users and dozens of organizations and found that the quality of the conversation can vary dramatically.
 One of the fundamental misconceptions that product teams have is that, because they themselves are professionals in product development, other users are, too, and that they can therefore be clear about what it is that they need and like out of a great product.
 In contrast, I would posit that most users of most products are not able to clearly articulate what it is that they would want out of a better product. This is especially true for any product where the ultimate goal of the user is not to engage with the product deeply and for its own sake. Video gaming is a nice counter-example; practically everything else, from Google to Apple to Amazon to whatever appliances or devices you have in your home, fit into “not using it for its own sake” category. Nobody uses Google to admire how good it is at crawling pages — you use it to find the answer to a question you have. Nobody uses Amazon because they love the One-Click experience — they use it because they want something cheap and fast.
 As a result, when you start to engage users of this product or any product, what you typically find are:

  • Users who want to complain about the one or two specific things they don’t like, regardless of that particular feature’s importance to the product overall
  • Users who are not familiar with the concept of a “mental model” and may, to a varying degree, not be able to express what mental model they have for the product they’re using (here’s a way to test this — using the classic ‘how do a fridge and freezer keep things cool and cold’ question from The Design of Everyday Things, ask this question to your non-product team friends and listen not for what their answer is, but how long it takes them to come up with ANY answer. If it is not relatively instantaneous, they are most likely creating one on the fly in response to your question)
  • Users who have not given any thought to improvements they would want out of a product that fit the Design, Business, Technology framework (a nice framework laid out in Creative Confidence)

For those product teams blessed to be working with users who do not exhibit any of the above behaviors, you have probably already stopped reading this because you are too busy celebrating shipping a phenomenal product on time, under budget, and with nothing but kudos from your users.
 For those teams who have more experience with the type of users I’m describing above, the challenge is therefore threefold:
 First, how do you find insights from what typical users are able to tell you about their current experiences?
 Second, how do you develop a product capability based on that insight?
 And lastly, how do you then frame what you’ve built back to your users so that they understand how it meets their (typically poorly expressed) needs?
 All of that to come in my next post. For now — Vive la France!