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Be a learner, not a knower

How asking the right questions leads to better UX

Do you ever think about the play icon? It’s pretty… iconic. Looking at it, an incredibly high percentage of people are likely to understand, instantly, what it’s communicating and how to interact with it. This is an example of what Don Norman would refer to as an affordance: An existing relationship between an object and a person that implies an expected outcome.

A symbol with such a high level of affordance that YouTube uses it in their logo

Regardless of the interface—YouTube, Netflix, or even a VCR—we’re fairly confident we know how to initiate a video when we come across one. Growing up with the everyone-has-a-microwave-in-the-home generation, it’s a symbol I’ve never questioned. In fact, a friend of mine argues that we—those early tech crash test dummies—learned the ins and outs of technology through ignorant fearlessness. We learned how to operate the VCR because we were naive enough to push all the buttons and wait for a response.

There were also way more buttons in those days.

See what I mean?

Today I learn from asking questions; obsessing over how things work by analyzing interactions. It’s an exercise that often relies on flat-out talking to people. Every time we question the way things work, we collect data on everyday interactions and strengthen our understanding of, not only what works, but why people love “this thing” versus “that thing.”

“Surveys and focus groups can be soulless and impersonal, but conversations between people align understanding and foster honest communication.”

Before pledging my allegiance to UX, I spent roughly 10 years working for creative agencies: The marketing with a big M world. And in that world we would often talk about knowing our audience. Today, I associate “knowing” with top-level data such as unique monthly site visitors, conversion rates… general analytics. While all of that data is measurable, it doesn’t give us the metrics we need to understand what people think, or how they act.

In fact, one of my favorite quotes on this idea comes from a short sci-fi novel from the early 1940s by Theodore Sturgeon, titled The Microcosmic God. In it he writes, of the protagonist: “He was always asking questions, and didn’t mind very much when they were embarrassing… if he was talking to someone whose knowledge was already in his possession, he only asked repeatedly: ‘How do you know?’”

“You see, ‘knowing’ can’t always be trusted. The concept itself leads to more questions. ‘Understanding’ is about getting into the hearts and brains of the people behind those numbers so we can make more informed decisions. Knowing allows us to target a specific type of person, while understanding provides a path to designing loveable products and experiences.”

“We know” is a phrase that often leads to failure. And we all fail at following our own advice sometimes.

. . .

I Don’t Understand

Somewhere in mid-2018 my mom agreed to watch our kids, at our house, so that my wife and I could go out. The kids wanted to watch a movie later that night, so to help her out I turned on the Blu-ray player, popped in the disc and handed her the remote, and told her to “just hit play” whenever they were ready.

And she said, “Which button is that?”

I was kind of shocked, so after a pause I answered, “…The play button.”

And she repeated her question.

Now, when it comes to my interactions with my mother I’m the type of person that will pick my hill and die on it, so, of course, I answered again with, “The play button.” But I put a little more emphasis on it this time, hoping that would clear things up.

She responded that she didn’t know which button I was talking about, so I kind of pumped my fists and emphatically stated: “The play button! This is a universally-understood symbol with 30+ years of history behind it,” and graciously pointed at the button.

And she said, “Well, you should have just said ‘push the arrow.’”

Come to find out, my mom—65 years old at the time—had never used a remote in her life. At home, she still got up and walked to the TV to change the channel, turn it on/off, adjust the volume, etc. Though I was shocked by this revelation, I realized that I got caught up in my own expectation that we shared a similar understanding. I should have asked questions, rather than knowing that I was right and assuming that she misunderstood.

. . .

Be a Learner, Not a Knower

When we treat our views as objective facts, it’s easy to make mistakes that are driven by assumptions. In the case of Jon v. Mom, the stakes were minimal. But when a company or brand fails to seek understanding, the consequences could be ruinous.

. . .

The big break for Silk came in 1978 when a national supermarket chain started carrying their products. Today, most of us know that products like soy and almond milk are shelf stable, meaning they don’t have to be refrigerated until they are opened. But, initially, Silk products were parked in the produce section, next to the fresh fruits and nuts.

This made sense to the makers of Silk, but in the late 1970s there were few consumers willing to give warm “milk” a try. Silk was taking a serious Neil Armstrong-sized step in their attempt to disrupt a pretty stable market without so much as talking to consumers.

“‘We know’ is a phrase that often leads to failure.”

Unsurprisingly, sales were consistently low until someone had the genius idea to move Silk products to the refrigerated case, right next to the dairy milk. This simple move, of catering to consumers’ expectations, not only saved their brand but put the product in a competitive (and expected) space.

In 1978 the makers of Silk knew their product, but they didn’t understand their customer, because they didn’t talk to them. 40 years later, non-dairy milk represents nearly 20% of the overall dairy market.

. . .

Experience = Understanding

In my final year working at an agency, I found that more and more often I was being discouraged from asking questions. Often ones that I felt were really important to understanding the goals of a project or reacting to client feedback. The need to make the client happy often prevented really valuable conversations from taking place.

“A homemade-fresh cake—you add fresh eggs.”

It’s through those honest, face-to-face conversations that real problems are often solved. A defining example being the story—more likely legend—of Betty Crocker cake mix.

In the 1950s, General Mills launched Betty Crocker cake mix in a box. By formulating a complete recipe made of dry goods, General Mills birthed—what they thought to be—a revolutionary product in the early days of American consumerism: All the ingredients of a cake; just add water.

The product was marketed as the error-free alternative for busy homemakers, saving both time and effort that could be applied to other household duties.

But it didn’t sell well.

So they decided to talk to their audience, and found that the average American housewife felt bad about using the product. The cakes were great, but the credit they got from their friends and family felt way more than they deserved. The product actually made users feel deceitful. So they gave up.

Instead of coming up with a slick advertising campaign telling the modern housewife (remember, this was the 1950s) that it was ok to have more time for laundry, cleaning, and other household chores, General Mills actually altered the product to require a fresh egg be added to the mix.

“Knowing allows us to target a specific type of person, while understanding provides a path to designing loveable products and experiences.”

This small change of adding a fresh ingredient to the process made consumers feel less guilt over using the product, and today people rarely bake a cake from “scratch.” It’s important to remember that we don’t always embrace the things that simplify our lives.

The lesson we learn from this story—true or untrue—is that often we need to experience the pain first, to be able to understand it. Approaching problems with ignorance and an inquisitive mind allows us to dig beneath the surface of those problems, by asking questions and placing assumptions aside. This is how we learn to empathize; to understand how people think and act. And empathy leads to better solutions designed for people.

In product design, we often benefit from sticking to expectations for interface and functionality so that we build products that work the way people expect them to. Before reinventing the wheel, before trying to innovate, one must first understand the value—the time, effort, and knowledge—that went into the thing they are attempting to disrupt.

The very first car radio, released in 1930, had a rotating knob that adjusted the volume up by turning it to the right, and down by turning it to the left. And 90 years later we’re still using radio knobs the same way.

“When people already understand a format, why force them to learn something new?”

But 2016 saw the launch of a Honda Pilot crossover that did away with the standard volume knob in favor of a volume control slider; a feature on the vehicle’s touchscreen interface. By 2019, the old-fashioned knob was back due to an abundance of consumer complaints.

If Honda product designers would have asked users to think about their typical interactions with a volume knob, they would have found that we reach for it to turn the music down when we’re having a conversation or listening to navigation, or quickly turn it up when we hear our favorite song or the cheer of a crowd during a baseball game. It’s a tool that provides us with quick results without taking our attention from the road.

It’s more familiar to us than steering wheel controls or voice-activated features, and therefore our most reliable volume control when driving an unfamiliar vehicle with an unfamiliar dashboard.

Implementing features that require precise hand interactions and take drivers’ eyes off the road for an extended period of time is a reckless use of technology. In an attempt to “modernize” their vehicle’s interface, Honda was instead disrupting a lifetime of driving habits. That’s a big gamble on technology.

The Honda story teaches us that more technology isn’t always the answer, and reinforces the idea that affordances (and familiarity) drive usability.

“Innovation doesn’t come without insight.”

To truly validate ideas, we have to know how people think and feel. Surveys and focus groups can be soulless and impersonal, but conversations between people align understanding and foster honest communication. It’s said that Henry Ford famously stated, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” And this may have worked in the 1920s. But in today’s everyone-is-a-user marketplace, as my colleague puts it:

If Henry Ford would have asked people what they wanted they would have tapped “Skip Survey”

— Shawn Donoho (@throwgoats) January 17, 2020

For more insights on the UX Mindset, check out my 2019 World Usability Day keynote talk:

Originally posted on Jon’s Medium page.

Multidisciplinary experience design consultant, creative director, and design educator. Exploring connections across UX, CX, and branding.

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