(Don’t) Listen to your Users. 

The old adage states that “the customer is always right”. 

In the product design world, we seek to understand and empathize with the people who use our products. This is a huge part of the design process and when it’s done well, it leads to software that helps users solve their problems.

But can we over-index on customer feedback and actually make decisions that make our products worse?

Let’s step back in time to 1952. General Mills has just launched their newest product; Betty Crocker instant cake mixes. It was all about speed, efficiency and helping stay at home mothers get their baking done as quickly as possible. 

But the test audience hated it. The response from the target market of female homemakers was terrible. In an era when they spent a great amount of time baking and cooking (and took great pride in doing so) this new instant cake mix felt like cheating. It felt like a cheap shortcut that infringed on their baking skills and shortchanged their family. 

Look for User Insights, Not Feedback.

By listening to the user insight (“It’s important that I feel that I really baked this cake for my family”) and not the user feedback (“I hate this new product”), the team at Betty Crocker found an incredible insight. 

They removed the powdered eggs from the original recipe. The new version of instant cake mix required a freshly cracked egg to be added to the mix. This one change (a reduction) made the stay at home moms feel like they we’re really baking a cake. It made the baking experience feel more authentic and less like a shortcut. And boom, the rest is history.

As designers we need to be more than good listeners. We need to be good analysts. We need to develop the superpower of sorting through user feedback to discover user insights – these are the real gems we’re trying to uncover.

Listen to users – but don’t do what they tell us to do.  

At first glance, it sounds like an oxymoron. What I mean is that we need to do the difficult work and  dig deeper. We need to go beyond the words customers say. We don’t take feedback at face value. Good product designers dig in, like a dog with a bone, we want to go deeper and understand motivations.

Some good question to ask to help uncover more insight:

  • Why do you need this feature?
  • What are you trying to accomplish? 
  • How would this help you? 

Look to customers to find problems, not solutions.

Sometimes it feels like the only way to do design correctly is to listen to customers and do what they want. Sometimes this is called human-centered or user-centered design and there is a strong current in the design world that customers are always right – and our job as designers is to take their feedback as gold and start building or scraping features based on what they tell us.

Not so fast.

Our users are NOT designers. They do NOT know the best way to craft a user interface. They’re great at helping us identity problems and pain-points but they are NOT great at designing solutions. It’s not their job. It’s not their expertise.

Do you tell your auto mechanic how to fix your vehicle? Of course not. You don’t know what they know. You share symptoms and problems and then you trust the expert.

I believe in user feedback. I believe in listening. I believe in digging in deeper to get to the good stuff. Listen to your users but don’t do what they tell you to do.

BTW, I’m supported in this POV by the Godfather of UX himself, Jakob Nielsen.

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