The Less You Understand The Better

What Empathy Really Means Part 3

Caden Damiano
5 min readSep 18, 2018

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I’m working on a Chinese initiative at work now. It is causing some ruckus across the teams involved.

One party is designing an entirely new product for a Chinese user base and the other party thinks it is a waste of resources to do so. They do not understand why we would create a brand new product if we could functionally accomplish the same things with an existing product.

Per usual, I am conflicted. Both sides have valid arguments.

On one side, it makes sense to roll the Chinese users features into the existing product from a feasibility standpoint. It is cost effective and consolidates potential technical debt.

But from a desirability standpoint, you look at businesses who do international right, like Gerber did when they created mango rice pudding for the Philippines and lamb broth for the Australian market.

The Gerber team realized that the baby food that was successful in the United States would not necessarily be a big hit in places like Japan or Taiwan. They tried and failed in that front.

When designing for users whose background and beliefs are fundamentally different from yours, I would argue that the closer you get to a viable solution, the less you should understand it.

Just because you wouldn’t feed your baby mango rice pudding, doesn’t mean the customer from the Philippines wouldn’t.

Let me explain.

When you are approaching a problem, you are in the discovery phase, you understand little of the problem, so creating solutions during this phase is usually a fools errand. If you do not understand the problem, it is near impossible to find a solution to it.

Understanding what the problem is is half the battle, remember, you are not your user. Avoid at all costs the creating of a solution during discovery phase.

Act like you know nothing. Which should be easy, because you don’t.

Eventually, after a good discovery phase, you get a general understanding of what the problem is. More importantly, what the right problem to focus on is.

You understand what bothers the user and what pain points they have.

Through successful discovery, you begin to come up with ideate solutions.

You are not a subject matter expert at this point, but you have some quality data to inform the design.

At this point, you have established an understanding of the root of the problem. The next step is to document your findings and create some user stories and requirements to organize the project.

Now that you have tidied up the mental workspace, the fun part begins and you start designing.

Now, I hope you noticed this in the diagram, the wider you get, the more you understand.

But my argument is this. When you are not in discovery phase and you are designing, the viable solution will start to materialize and you will start to understand why it exists less and less.

The Danger of Synthesis

The taking of raw materials that you acquire from analysis and making it into something new and original has a certain danger from it. Because the end product is rarely what you imagined it to be at project kick off.

A lot of design work is anti-climatic, that is because if the end product is synthesized through user centered design, it becomes something that is not for you.

You understand that a user from China would prefer to do something a certain way, but once the solution is made, it becomes something you would personally never use. It doesn’t make sense to you, it is irreconcilable to your mental models.

Because you would never use it, it is tempting to think it should never exist, and you should seek to reconcile it by either changing it to mold to your perception of the world or by trashing the project altogether.

I say, the closer you get to a solution that isn’t meant for you, the less you should understand it. You are not the intended user after all.

The more it becomes something the intended user would love to use, the less you should want to use it. The less it makes sense to you, the more it should make sense to the customer.

That is why user testing is so important, the users should validate your solution. Not you, the PM or anybody else in the company has the moral authority to say something is “done” because the user should hold that right.

Conclusion

So do I know if making a separate Chinese product is a good idea?

Honestly I don’t know, the more we design a solution, the less it makes sense to me.

But so far the user testing is positive so we must be on the right track.

Thanks for reading this far. I don’t claim that my answer is the best explanation of the current creative dilemma in this article so I am open to anyone adding to this theory. Let me know what you think!

Caden Damiano is a User Experience Designer based in the Silicon Slopes.

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Caden Damiano

Host of “The Way of Product Design” Podcast owner of "The Way of Product" Innovation Studio