The Startup
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The Startup

USER RESEARCH

Observing Users Is for Plebs

or how user-centricity fades in growing tech companies

The most user-centric companies I’ve worked with, tend to be those where the leaders take the time to observe user research and engage with other forms of customer feedback. Yes it helps them to take more informed decisions, but it also has an influence on the attitude of the rest of the business.

Unfortunately from what I can see, they drop this behaviour as the company grows. As a result of this and other factors, user-centricity appears to wither and die as companies grow.

The fictional story which follows has a moral to it. In order to be really user-centric, a company should have a culture where key decision-makers (not just front-line product teams) regularly observe users. You can’t just hire a team to do that bit for you, unless they are the ones making literally all of the product decisions.

A tech company is born

In the beginning of a tech company, the founders are often the only people in it. They identified a problem to solve and crave knowing more about the problem space. As a result they often spend a lot of time talking to potential users of their product. They learn valuable things which help them make crucial decisions.

As the company grows, more people are employed and a leadership team is formed — The C-Team.

At this early stage, the C-Team are already very busy people. Their time is split between a number of groups. Mostly it’s their colleagues, investors and those in the same industry as them. In user-centric organisations, the C-Team devotes a small, but important amount of time to keeping in touch with needs and behaviour of users/customers.

Fast forward several years

A number of years later the company’s product is a success. The organisation fought the incumbents and won. It is they who are the incumbents now. Newer, more dynamic competitors are emerging to unseat them from their position.

A slogan of user-centricity now exists within the organisation. Something like..

“If it’s not for the customer, then it’s not for us”

This phrase features on posters around the offices and is quoted at all the important company meetings and updates. It is written into the frameworks used to assess colleague performance. It’s everywhere.

The organisation has never before devoted so much money and effort to talking about its user-centricity. But ironically, it has never been any less user-centred in its history.

The company has a research team, massive budgets and dozens of designers. But the work being done has less impact than the scrappy research the company did several years earlier. Research projects have become less about learning and shaping company direction. They are now commissioned to validate existing ideas, learn about stuff users don’t actually care about, or create an illusion of certainty around the direction the company already chose.

What happened to this company?

How they lost their way

There are a number of factors which lead to small, dynamic companies growing into bloated, ineffective ones. But how is it that user-centric ones come to lose this quality?

In my view, the changing behaviour of those at the top played an important part in this. They inadvertently taught the organisation a bad lesson in priorities.

“I’m too busy for that now”

As the company became bigger and more successful, leadership had increasing demands placed on its time, energy and head space. They employed more and more layers of management to take on much of it.

The C-Team quickly realised they needed to hire someone dedicated to user research. Initially the C-Team continued to consume the research first-hand. They didn’t need to observe it all, but just bits of it to keep themselves in touch.

As the organisation and its success grew further, there were new demands on their time, both internally and from industry.

Eventually they stopped watching. When they did so, they didn’t notice any real difference. They were still in regular touch with the team who did all the research and product teams enjoyed high levels of trust and autonomy. These teams were observing users and they were the ones making the decisions.

As the company grew further, increasing layers of management were put between the C-Team and those who learned about user needs. Eventually the C-Team and the UX team were around 4–5 layers of (ambitious) management apart from one another. These layers became gatekeepers to the flow of information in the company. This stopped information flowing upwards in the organisation as well as it used to.

Influence on the wider organisation

Unlike in a small company, the C-Team of the now large company were afforded a demigod-like status. Thousands of people looked on them for leadership. People in the organisation mirrored their behaviour and attitudes, in hope of achieving similar successes.

Observing users is for the plebs

When the C-Team were still devoting time to keeping in touch with users, a lot of other people in the company did so too. After all, if the bosses were doing it, then it must be valuable.

When the C-Team initially got too busy and stopped, the Head of Product was still doing it and evangelising the benefits of doing so to others. The product team also enjoyed high levels of trust and autonomy. The people taking the decisions about developing the product were still observing users.

Over time however, more and more senior hires came in. The company changed a little with every new senior hire. The C-Team had stopped spending time with their users, so it didn’t occur to these new senior people to do it either. These new layers of management also eroded the autonomy of product teams. They wanted to take many of the important decisions themselves and have the product teams do the things they wanted. This transferred decision-making power from people who were regularly observing users, to people who weren’t doing so.

The behaviour of senior people sent out the message that important people don’t have time to observe user research. When people want a promotion, they take a cue from the people above them, not below. And nobody above was observing users anymore. Everyone who wanted to appear successful, was too busy for that. Even the Head of Design & Research followed the same pattern of behaviour. For them, attending research was a photo opportunity, an Instagram moment to help with hiring.

Observing users is for the plebs.

Losing the plot

Over time the internal discussions about how customers thought and spoke became more and more surreal. They sounded more like how a senior executive in a tech company would speak rather than someone outside of the company’s bubble.

At meetings, someone could comfortably say “Our customers are demanding a personalised advertising experience”. Nobody would laugh, because it wasn’t a joke. They had come to believe that normal people, outside of their bubble, give a shit about such things.

When people at the top lose the plot, it trickles through the organisation. Those who report to them mimic the same behaviours. The most important decisions are soon being made by the people in the company who spend the least amount of time listening to and observing users.

The problem isn’t that the C-Team are now out of touch with real users, it’s the fact that much of the rest of the company followed their lead. The people with the best understanding of users are struggling to be heard and are considered unimportant.

Cheesy corporate initiatives can’t save them. The slogan, the posters on the wall and the cardboard cut-outs of users in meeting rooms. None of this will help. These are gimmicks to promote empathy, when what’s lacking is understanding.

Why they stop listening

I can understand why senior leadership decide to stop watching research when they become too busy. I don’t agree with it, but I can see how it might happen.

Firstly, there is a fair amount of repetition in what you see and hear from one session to the next. This is especially the case when the product has some big issues needing fixed. The consistency between sessions can lead you to believe that you won’t hear anything new at the next session.

Often what you hear is painful and exposing yourself to that pain can feel like self torture. You also can’t always see the impact of what you’re learning.

When you’re hearing a lot of the same (often painful) things repeatedly and can’t actually place the benefit of the more passive things you come to understand, then you can easily find something more immediately pressing to do with that time.

Healthy eating

The benefits of regular user observation are more like healthy eating than heart surgery. You don’t really notice the benefit of each healthy meal or bout of exercise. One of the benefits might be the absence of a heart-attack at the age of 40. The heart surgery you have to go through as a result of the heart attack has a more easily identifiable impact.

Commissioning a research project to answer an important strategic question is more like heart surgery. It’s an attempt to respond to an acute lack of understanding. But many organisations have a chronic condition.

Heart surgery might save your life, but it doesn’t turn you into a healthy person, unless you were otherwise healthy in the first place.

Exposure hours

If you want great results from user-centred design in your organisation, then the job of being user-centred can’t be given to one department while the rest of the company behaves like it always did. Instead, an understanding of users needs to be shared among those making the decisions. Much of that understanding can’t really be delivered in a slide deck to those people. Instead people need to regularly get first-hand experience of it.

When a company gets big, it needs a more formalised way of providing colleagues with regular access to user observation and listening. This is where the concept of exposure hours comes in.

However, you may need senior decision-makers in attendance if you hope to get anyone else to take the time.

About the author

I’m David Hamill. I help organisations take better decisions through lean but meaningful UX research. If you liked this post, you can read some more below. You can also take a look at my YouTube channel.

Product management

Design

User research

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