How To Drink Water and Respect Your Users

I’ll never not find this funny… I usually use this cartoon with a caption about how we as product developers look at our users.

How To Drink Water
This is your user, but it’s probably your fault.

I generally try to keep my musing about politics and my professional life as separate as possible. But I’ve been thinking over an intersection between my passion for user research and product design and a recent Public Policy Polling poll that got a lot of attention.

Long story short on the poll: The pollsters did their poll and asked a bunch of people if they supported bombing the fictional city of Agrabah (from Disney’s Aladdin). I have #AllTheOpinions at the link, but there’s an element of this that I want to rabbit trail on: the question of empathy and respect for our users.

If you’re a pollster, your primary users are the people who consume (and hopefully pay for) your polling. I’m guessing this means news organizations and/or direct consumers, private firms who want to determine public sentiment, etc.

But one user persona that might be overlooked is the poll respondents. These are the people who pick up the phone and give their time for free to the pollsters so that the polling firm actually has a product / service that makes their work valuable. These people give their time… and they do it for free, which is incredible.

And these users deserve a little more respect.

It’s disrespectful to troll your users with fake questions… especially when those users have given you their time for free. I argue this more strenuously at the link above, but at the end of the day, it feels like the pollsters went to their respondents looking for people to say something dumb and then made that the core question of their poll… or at the very least the part of the poll they decided to publicize. It does not sound to me like the pollsters have any empathy or respect for the people who were generous enough to answer 40+ questions (and presumably give away 15-20 minuets of their time) for free.

It’s easy to say “people are dumb.” That’s the cheapest, laziest, simplest solution we can give when we don’t understand people or motivations. If we see people say or do something that, from our position, looks ridiculous or mindless, it’s easy to say “people are dumb” or “people just need to shut up.” It’s easy to have disdain. In fact, it’s comforting. Disdain distances us from the dumb people. It creates a separation that puts us on the “right” side, the “smart” side, the side that knows what is going on and makes us feel like we’re better than the people who don’t get it.

This also goes for the products and software we make. It’s dangerously easy (perhaps even comforting) to put ourselves on the “smart” side and put our users are the “dumb” side.

I’ve posted this joke on Twitter a couple times because it speaks to us as product developers. We’re the grand subject matter experts on our products. We know why there is latency in the UI, a pause in the download. When we see our app as working, they see our app as frozen. They gloss over the things that we’ve successfully done and that were hard to do and focus all their attention on that thing that is next on our list but we just haven’t gotten to it yet. We’ve built a product that we understand inside and out and when we see other people using our product, it sometimes feels like they just can’t do anything right, they can’t understand the simplest, most obvious things.

The thing I love the most about user-focused design, research, and product development is talking to users and getting feedback. Feedback is amazing. It connects the developers to the users in a way that is vital to the task and success of the product. I’ve built whole apps and solutions just so I can get feedback on concepts that I wanted to try out. Yes, this was probably overkill, but there is also nothing quite like seeing how people use something that you’ve built and how they react to it.

The most important thing I’ve learned is: There are very few people out there who are actually stupid. Most people focus on the things that matter to them and, for the most part, just ignore everything else. When you’re focused on something you care about, suddenly you realize how little everyone knows about it.

I had a car mechanic friend who would try to hold in a soft chuckle whenever he met someone who couldn’t change a tire. This was, in his mind, the most amazing thing. Most cars come with 2 pieces of metal for changing the tire… and an extra tire. The only thing you have to do is unscrew the bolts and the tire comes off and the new one goes on. The mechanics of it are about as hard to understand as changing a battery.

But people struggle with it. Some people don’t know where to put the jack or how to extend the jack or how far to extend the jack. Some people don’t know how to take the hub cap off or which way the bolts unscrew. This seemed blindingly obvious to my friend… the very simplest part of taking care of your car. One step up from operating the pump to put gas in it.

On politics, my friend didn’t like to give his opinion. Not because he didn’t care, but because it wasn’t a big part of his life. Who is president didn’t make a huge impact in his day-to-day world, so (honestly) why spend the mental energy on it? It’s not like having an opinion or not having an opinion changed anything one way or the other. He just wasn’t interested.

He’s the sort of person people would make fun of online as “dumb.” The “man on the street” interviews that we hold up to ridicule. But, to him, 99% of the people who think he is dumb because he doesn’t care about what they care about… well, these people don’t know the most obvious things about cars.

I occasionally make jokes about dumb users, but I need to remind myself: My users are not dumb. They are smart about what they care about. They just don’t happen to care that much about my product (yet).

Holding users in disdain is particularly worrisome for software developers. It’s like a PR person complaining that people are misunderstanding. If the job is to communicate, then the professional communicator should bear the brunt of the responsibility for making sure people understand what is being said.

Our job as developers is to make stuff that works. Stuff only works when people use it. If people can’t use it, it’s not working. If people use it wrong because they don’t understand it, it’s not working. This isn’t to say that everything needs to be instantly intuitive. There are very few things in this world we can instantly understand without some entry-level education in the topic.

We can’t educate people we despise. People know when they’re being sneered on, when we’re being dismissive or condescending. And, quite frankly, when it comes to dealing with people who think you’re stupid…

I worry that we’re defaulting to “people are dumb” too much. That’s not how we learn to make better things or understand people.  I worry that I’ve seen more and more people saying “I don’t *need* to understand dumb people.” It’s easy (and comforting to our egos) to be dismissive or condescending. This is a big thing culturally, especially with the increasingly isolated social networks in which we find ourselves.

I want this next year to be when I always remember as I build my apps and products: People are not dumb. People are smart. And I’m lucky to have them taking the time to use my app, use my product, or take the time to talk to me about what they think.

We build stuff not because we love stuff but because we love the people using our stuff and we want their lives to be better. Let’s act like it.