Or: why we sometimes should not listen to our customer

For user-centered design what users need is tenet. However, every now and then, a user / consumer / client / customer tells you what he needs, and you just sense that something is wrong. At first, you just may raise your eyebrows, but in time you get convinced that you should not listen to him too carefully. You experience doubt, inciting an inquiry to grasp why someone is asking for something you cannot believe he truly needs. I had this experience more than once, what I sometimes named the paradox of user centered design. This week I found an answer to this paradox.

No, thank you

maintenanceYears ago, I was part of a development team who had to improve an existing product. It was a ‘mid-life kick’: a relatively small investment with the aim to extend its market lifetime considerably. Some new features, a little faster, somewhat cheaper, another color and so on. A normal procedure for many consumer products. To get a feel of the product and its context, I went along with a maintenance technician for some days. As always, it was a genuinely pleasant week, with loads of fresh insights and unusual perspectives of a real craftsman. I noted that we were walking often between the product and his car, e.g., to get spare parts, an odd tool or just a power extension cord. It took considerable time in some cases, as it is not self-evident that a maintenance guy gets permission to have his car close nearby. I got an idea: what if we could optimize the product in such a way that the maintenance technician is optimally supported to do his tasks locally? It could reduce the cost for maintenance, and enhance the uptime for clients at the same time. A genuine win-win situation.

So the team started to analyze what the problems are and what could be improved relatively easily, the low-hanging fruit. One of the straightforward ideas was to have a power outlet inside the product, so that the technician always has an outlet available for his electrical tools or laptop. Of course, there were cost involved, conflicting with another aim to reduce the cost price. So we had a team meeting, including a representative of the maintenance technicians. I felt confident that the team would choose wisely, as reducing one or two walks per technician would already justify the outlet. Much to my surprise the suggestion was rejected, because the representative felt no need for it. “No thank you”, he said kindly. Quite unpleasantly he repeated that line more often in that meeting, for a range of improvements we suggested.

I was flabbergasted: why on earth did he reject these things that would make his life easier? And I was annoyed, because his rejections made me seem an incompetent ‘user-centered’ designer, as the ‘user’ himself did not seem to like my proposals.

The identity of the craftsman

Only years later, I truly understand his rejection. At least: I can emphasize with it. For some time already, I am learning to use a machine we sell to genuine specialists, craftsman so to say. It is a remarkable machine, quite successful in the market as well. But it isn’t a user-centered product, to put it mildly.  That is the very reason why I trying to master it: to get ideas to enhance its usability. But becoming an craftsman myself was hard. I made many mistakes. I had cold sweat on my back every now and then when it seemed I truly messed up, resulting into costly errors. I needed training and support, even for relatively simple things. But in time I mastered the machine, becoming a genuine skilled operator. Some team members came to see how things went, and admired how I smartly used it. Strangely, I felt proud.

It struck me that this feeling was the pride of the craftsman. Mastering the machine wasn’t easy at all, and the process changed me. Precisely because it is hard, it is also a challenge. And meeting challenges is developing personal identity. I felt proud because I became a craftsman, making things others can’t. Having skills others didn’t have.  Nowadays I’m not only a designer inside the team, I’m also the ‘guy who can make great stuff with it’. The skill changed my personal identity. If this may strike as odd to you, just consider the pride we all experience every now and then when we mastered something difficult, such as playing piano, driving a motor or running long distances. You become ‘a piano player’, a ‘motor driver’ or a ‘marathon runner’.

The fallacy of the craftsman

Yet this pride blurred my vision. Suddenly  I realized that meeting challenges that are hard for others has become part of my skill, my being a craftsman. If things would become very easy, everybody can do it, and my skill has become obsolete. If someone redesigns a piano in such a way that anyone can play Rachmaninoff within a week, becoming a piano player suddenly is less special. Part of the identity of a pianist is lost. And that is what happened with the representative of maintenance technicians I mentioned before. Within my company, ‘hero’ stories among maintenance technicians pop up every now and then. The story of a technician who was capable to have products up and running just after Katrina flooded New Orleans. A technician who was capable to install a product that had to be moved in through the roof. The technician that went to client despite the fact that a blizzard made any travelling impossible. Asking a craftsman how to make his work easier, the answer you get is the same when asking a pianist if he needs help to play Rachmaninoff: “no thank you”. I name this the fallacy of the craftsman, because -to be honest- is has nothing to do with genuine pride and craftsmanship. It blocks any progress.

Let’s face it: if designers and developers would have listened too well to a skilled coachman 120 years ago, we still would be driving horses and coaches. Things change.

The paradox resolved

The fallacy lays bare the delicate paradox of user centered design. By putting users central, we assume that what users want is what is needed. Yet what users say sometimes has nothing to do with what is really needed.  And even showing good alternatives may not change his mind. So: should we listen or not? Should we design things as asked for, or should we design things that may offend them, or even making their tasks and jobs redundant?

pianist-josef-hofmannFor me, the paradox is finally resolved. Designing for users also involves every now and then to ignore what users may say, simply because time will prove him (entirely) wrong. This may sound arrogant, so let me explain. Point is: this pride of the craftsman is not genuine and surely not constructive. Craftsmanship can be about the skills (e.g., playing piano) or about what it results into, its purpose (e.g., composing music). Put differently: the craft and the art. Yet the craft needs to change to improve the art. If one takes an historical perspective, one will see that all crafts have changed considerably. Yet the art remains, and is progressing. Also  the tools that are used changed considerably or are forgotten about entirely. Piano’s have become better and possibly one day will be replaced by instruments that are better, just as the clavichord was replaced by the piano. Sticking to things and tools that are so difficult to operate that it reduces genuine progress is counterproductive. Even if your users love them.

If I could invent a piano everybody can play, possibly the identity of the pianist is severely harmed, but many more people will play. And compose new exiting music. That is what the world is waiting for.

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