How did we not see this coming?

Lessons of political predictions and digital product development

I was recently listening to the New Yorker podcast (here’s a link) about how pundits have been blindsided by the seemingly out of nowhere support of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

There are parallel lessons that stuck out to me because we face similar challenges in digital product development as well.

Data can’t tell us everything

“We got waylaid by the myth of our own certainty last time around..
we were very clear that the way to predict elections was a science, not an art that actually if you just looked at the polls you could assemble a very accurate sense of what’s going on” — New Yorker Political Scene

The quote above describes how perhaps we became overconfident in our reliance on data as a tool to predict anything. Data was an important theme in the 2012 presidential when well known pundits studied polls and data to correctly predict the results of all 50 states.

And yet no amount of data could have predicted the unexpected support for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. This is a healthy reminder in digital product development that data is a necessary but insufficient way of understanding people.

The solution is to triangulate between both quantitative and qualitative techniques for an accurate understanding of people. One method is to use in-depth qualitative research to gain a deep, contextual understanding of people followed wider scale quantitative surveys to check prevalence. Measuring prevalence makes sure we don’t over value an experience that turns out to be an anomaly.

We need to get out into the field

“There’s an element of geography to this, the reality is that alot of the people who write these stories… live in places like Washington DC and New York, and when you go out to Iowa and New Hampshire..
it takes about 5 minutes before you discover that there’s this enormous anger out there against politics as a business and the journalists..
I do think the seclusion in effect of the part of the media that has a big megaphone from what is in fact the lived experience on the ground of alot of Americans mean that we’ve been caught off guard.” — New Yorker Political Scene

A reporter on the podcast admitted that perhaps the gap between people’s lives in the DC bubble and Iowa is bigger than he realized. Sometimes a first person experience gives us the empathy to cover this blind spot.

“when you go out to Iowa and New Hampshire and it takes about 5 minutes before you discover that there’s this enormous anger out there against politics”

5 minutes.

Realizing that the people we design for are different than us is different than empathizing with them. We think we know who our users are, or what people in Iowa are like, but do we really?

Sometimes field visits seem unnecessary at worst or inconvenient at best. But whenever I assume I’ll see nothing unexpected from a field visit, I’m probably most in need of one.

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