Designers don’t understand the user

Monish SubherwalDesign LeadershipLeave a Comment

In almost all companies I’ve worked for, the designer is said to be “the user’s advocate.” He/she is supposed to know what people want.

“Hey guys, we need a UX designer in here to help with understanding what users need.”

While that is a nice ego-massage, that thinking is wrong.

Everyone’s an expert…and they are not

I just got back from a 3 day workshop on “Lean Startup” – a methodology that advocates for validated learning when creating products. Their mantra: building, measuring, and learning with SPEED.

The workshop was a very interesting experience. In the beginning we formed groups and each one of us sat there acting as if WE knew what customers wanted. This is the “norming” stage of groups where everyone is trying to “look good” and there are elements of “already knowing” (I wrote about this earlier as well).

And to be honest, the people in the group DID know what customers wanted. They knew customer buying strategies and they are highly educated on the market and business needs.

In short, they knew a lot of quantitative and qualitative data.

However as our workshop progressed, I realized that is NOT knowing the customer. That is knowing ABOUT the customer. A lot of that knowledge came second hand from BIG DATA (which is very trendy these days).

THE BIG QUESTION: HOW WELL DO YOU UNDERSTAND YOUR CUSTOMER?

What is the percentage of your time you spend talking to your customers? When this was asked during our workshop, the crowd showed 5% or less people raising their hands.

The hard truth is this: Designers know users and customers oftentimes as much as developers or product people do.

There I said it. Now designers will get angry. They think they know the user, but they don’t. But don’t worry. The reality is – most people don’t know the user either.

The ultimate test of “knowing” what users want — is not a designer being a hotshot and saying that he/she knows the user. It is time spent engaging the customer and oftentimes thats the same amount of time other people engage the customer.

Knowing the user means spending time in front of users as much as possible. Validating design oftentimes (this requires putting your ego in check) and an insane focus on engaging real customers.

Design Leadership

A big part of design leadership is concerned about the team and company experiencing, understanding, spending time with the user and seeing the user struggle with problems and helping the team and company “get the user’s world.” It is pure empathy that drives the design.

Our workshop facilitators shared a great quote that sums up the fuel of a great design leader: “Our empathy is so deep we can not NOT solve our customer’s problem”

This requires you spend time with REAL customers. Only then can a solution be examined.

But the problem is a lot of designers SAY they know the customer and ACT pompous. They are are really ego-driven designers and NOT design leaders.

Ego-Driven Designer vs. Design Leader

An ego driven designer:

  • Opinionated about what the customer wants and needs.
  • Attached to HIS or HER vision
  • Quick to shoot down ideas that don’t fit his/her model
  • Claims to know what users are struggling with
  • Has spent very little time with REAL customers
  • Can (and often does) design with partnering with product and development – building that relationship – rather than with a real customer
  • Gets internal validation from their manager telling them “good job!” rather than the customer telling them “thank you!”
  • Claims to know what to do based solely on BIG DATA
  • Already knows

A design leader:

  • A design leader spends more time trying to learn the customer
  • Understands a “day in the life” of the customer because they have spent time with the customer
  • Has great listening skills and talks less then he listens
  • Relies on experience with the user and BIG DATA
  • Has great empathy skills and strives to understand rather than “know”
  • Is open to discovering the customer

There is absolutely a mind shift. Read on…

Understanding > Knowing

You may tell me about famine or war or your money problems and I can totally get what you are talking about.

However, knowing about your situation and UNDERSTANDING your situation are two different things.

Knowing typically means awareness. Understanding means comprehension. Knowing is like reading a book on skiing, understanding is having gone to the slope!

It’s a subtle difference, but it makes all the difference. When you claim you “already know” the customer and don’t want to spend time with the customer — your listening shuts down and your desire to get things done YOUR WAY comes up. The ego-driven designer emerges and it becomes about YOU.

Empathy > Sympathy

Similar to the distinction between Understanding and Knowing — there is a distinction between sympathy and empathy.

Sympathy is the false concern. It’s telling the other person to cheer up because at least they are alive or to take your buddy out to the bar rather than just sitting and lending an ear.

It’s saying users don’t like our banners — and then giving a nicely designed banner. No one wants a banner – no matter how pretty it is!

Empathy, on the other hand, is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes — because we’ve been there. It is emotionally feeling and connecting with another person and their situation.

Designers are Valuable (Don’t Worry)

This article is not saying designers don’t have any value. We have plenty of valuable tools and methodologies which help us create the user experience.

I may KNOW my customers need a certain feature. The product person told me they need it. So I work on designing it and eventually show it to the customer and iterate.

But thats not the real work. The real stuff is the focus on user needs – and feeling empathy and developing understanding. It’s walking in the other person’s shoes.

I may have designed a solution that works, but I may not UNDERSTAND a day in the user’s life. I may not get their pain – and unless I have spent time with them using the product, I can totally MISS what they are looking for and instead design what I THINK they need.

True grit as a designer is not how well the page looks and “wow’s” as much as it solve real customer needs through the art of understanding and empathy.

Your Thoughts?

What do you think of this article? How much time do you spend with customers?
ompanies I’ve worked for, the designer is said to be “the user’s advocate.” He/she is supposed to know what people want.
“Hey guys, we need a UX designer in here to help with understanding what users need.”

While that is a nice ego-massage, that thinking is wrong.

Everyone’s an expert…and they are not

I just got back from a 3 day workshop on “Lean Startup” – a methodology that advocates for validated learning when creating products. Their mantra: building, measuring, and learning with SPEED.

The workshop was a very interesting experience. In the beginning we formed groups and each one of us sat there acting as if WE knew what customers wanted. This is the “norming” stage of groups where everyone is trying to “look good” and there are elements of “already knowing” (I wrote about this earlier as well).

And to be honest, the people in the group DID know what customers wanted. They knew customer buying strategies and they are highly educated on the market and business needs.

In short, they knew a lot of quantitative and qualitative data.

However as our workshop progressed, I realized that is NOT knowing the customer. That is knowing ABOUT the customer. A lot of that knowledge came second hand from BIG DATA (which is very trendy these days).

THE BIG QUESTION: HOW WELL DO YOU UNDERSTAND YOUR CUSTOMER?

What is the percentage of your time you spend talking to your customers? When this was asked during our workshop, the crowd showed 5% or less people raising their hands.

The hard truth is this: Designers know users and customers oftentimes as much as developers or product people do.

There I said it. Now designers will get angry. They think they know the user, but they don’t. But don’t worry. The reality is – most people don’t know the user either.

The ultimate test of “knowing” what users want — is not a designer being a hotshot and saying that he/she knows the user. It is time spent engaging the customer and oftentimes thats the same amount of time other people engage the customer.

Knowing the user means spending time in front of users as much as possible. Validating design oftentimes (this requires putting your ego in check) and an insane focus on engaging real customers.

Design Leadership

A big part of design leadership is concerned about the team and company experiencing, understanding, spending time with the user and seeing the user struggle with problems and helping the team and company “get the user’s world.” It is pure empathy that drives the design.

Our workshop facilitators shared a great quote that sums up the fuel of a great design leader: “Our empathy is so deep we can not NOT solve our customer’s problem”

This requires you spend time with REAL customers. Only then can a solution be examined.

But the problem is a lot of designers SAY they know the customer and ACT pompous. They are are really ego-driven designers and NOT design leaders.

Ego-Driven Designer vs. Design Leader

An ego driven designer:

  • Opinionated about what the customer wants and needs.
  • Attached to HIS or HER vision
  • Quick to shoot down ideas that don’t fit his/her model
  • Claims to know what users are struggling with
  • Has spent very little time with REAL customers
  • Can (and often does) design with partnering with product and development – building that relationship – rather than with a real customer
  • Gets internal validation from their manager telling them “good job!” rather than the customer telling them “thank you!”
  • Claims to know what to do based solely on BIG DATA
  • Already knows

A design leader:

  • A design leader spends more time trying to learn the customer
  • Understands a “day in the life” of the customer because they have spent time with the customer
  • Has great listening skills and talks less then he listens
  • Relies on experience with the user and BIG DATA
  • Has great empathy skills and strives to understand rather than “know”
  • Is open to discovering the customer

There is absolutely a mind shift. Read on…

Understanding > Knowing

You may tell me about famine or war or your money problems and I can totally get what you are talking about.

However, knowing about your situation and UNDERSTANDING your situation are two different things.

Knowing typically means awareness. Understanding means comprehension. Knowing is like reading a book on skiing, understanding is having gone to the slope!

It’s a subtle difference, but it makes all the difference. When you claim you “already know” the customer and don’t want to spend time with the customer — your listening shuts down and your desire to get things done YOUR WAY comes up. The ego-driven designer emerges and it becomes about YOU.

Empathy > Sympathy

Similar to the distinction between Understanding and Knowing — there is a distinction between sympathy and empathy.

Sympathy is the false concern. It’s telling the other person to cheer up because at least they are alive or to take your buddy out to the bar rather than just sitting and lending an ear.

It’s saying users don’t like our banners — and then giving a nicely designed banner. No one wants a banner – no matter how pretty it is!

Empathy, on the other hand, is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes — because we’ve been there. It is emotionally feeling and connecting with another person and their situation.

Designers are Valuable (Don’t Worry)

This article is not saying designers don’t have any value. We have plenty of valuable tools and methodologies which help us create the user experience.

I may KNOW my customers need a certain feature. The product person told me they need it. So I work on designing it and eventually show it to the customer and iterate.

But thats not the real work. The real stuff is the focus on user needs – and feeling empathy and developing understanding. It’s walking in the other person’s shoes.

I may have designed a solution that works, but I may not UNDERSTAND a day in the user’s life. I may not get their pain – and unless I have spent time with them using the product, I can totally MISS what they are looking for and instead design what I THINK they need.

True grit as a designer is not how well the page looks and “wow’s” as much as it solve real customer needs through the art of understanding and empathy.

Your Thoughts?

What do you think of this article? How much time do you spend with customers?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.