You Don’t Understand Your Users

You Don’t Understand Your Users

My wife turned to me the other day and said “can you install apps on the Apple Watch?” That would be an innocuous question for someone looking to purchase an Apple Watch, but my wife has owned an Apple Watch for over 2 years. If you’re passionate about technology you’re probably thinking my wife sounds like your dear sweet grandmother. Would you care for some Ovaltine?

But that isn’t the case at all. My wife is in her 30’s, uses technology regularly, has a doctorate degree, and doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes you might be currently conjuring.

“What? Really? Are you serious?” That was the first thing that popped into my brain, but I’m glad I managed to keep it from coming out of my mouth. I do have my moments.

“Yeeeeees”, I replied. It came out more like a question than a statement. Then after an awkwardly long pause I asked “why?” I might have been grinning a bit.

I have to admit, my first response would have been far more satisfying, but after more than a decade of marriage, I understood that was a road I didn’t want to travel.

She patiently explained to me, with a look that can only be described as “thanks for not being an ass, this time” that she had an application on her phone that she thought would be useful on her Apple Watch. But she had never considered whether installing applications on her watch was possible. She regularly used the built-in apps on the watch, but she didn’t think of them as apps but merely features of the watch. So it had never occurred to her to question whether you could add an app to the watch. It just hadn’t come up.

All of this, when explained to me, made total sense. But my brain, trapped in my own worldview, had a hard time initially grasping her view of her smart watch.


I went over the conversation in my head later, in the way that I tend to whenever I have an interaction that feels “off” in some way. My brain tends to flag these conversations for review later… often ad nauseum.

I hope you don’t have this affliction.

Anyway, here is someone that I have known for almost 20 years, and have lived with for almost 15. She has similar life experiences to myself, similar level of education, came from the same home town, and grew up in a household with a similar socioeconomic status. This is someone that you’d think I would be able to empathize with a bit. And in some ways, I probably can. But I’m a software engineer by trade, and a big part of my identity is tied up in technology. I also work with a team of engineers and designers on a daily basis, and so I think my view of technology is just a bit skewed from the average population. It also shows how powerful the false-consensus effect can be.

The reality is simple though, she doesn’t care about or see technology in the way I do. For her, the Apple Watch is an almost perfect piece of technology. She has never had to think about how it works. The watch faces and built-in functionality she wants are easily accessible and mostly intuitive. She would probably consider the fact that she has never thought about apps in the context of her watch to be a positive thing.

But why wasn’t I able to see this?

Empathy is an Illusion

Experienced product engineers and designers talk a lot about empathy, but we are actually the least-equipped people to empathize with most users. We understand how software works at such a detailed level that we can’t freely empathize with casual users of the systems we build. The mismatch in our mental models is just too great.

When we try to build software through thought exercises and imagined empathy, what we end up doing is building software for ourselves while guessing at what someone else will need.

In the software world, guessing at what someone else needs or imagining what they need, often passes for empathy. If you really think about it, it sounds a bit crazy, but surprisingly it can work in some scenarios:

  1. You’re building an app that you need or want, and it turns out that a lot of other people have the same needs.
  2. You’re building an app in a way that makes sense to you, and it turns out there are enough other people that see things in a similar way that you do.

For example, if you’re a software engineer, and you’re building a tool that you need for your own work, then you have a reasonable chance that you can create something that will be useful to other software engineers. But quite often I talk to people who are building a piece of software for a group of users that they only have a tangential relationship with, and they haven’t done anything other than a cursory validation of their ideas with people inside of that group.

Oddly enough, I’ve talked with a number of people about building food delivery services. Most of the folks I’ve talked to though only understand this business from the ordering side of things. They haven’t run a restaurant, they don’t understand their needs or incentives. This is a recipe for failure.

If you go down that road, you’re just guessing, and whether you’re successful or not will depend largely on luck and the amount of resources you have to keep refining after you find out customers don’t really need what you’re building. Without getting in front of users early and often, you can’t learn and iterate, which are at the heart of validated learning and the lean startup process.

Seek a Deeper Empathy

So while you might get lucky, or you might share a viewpoint with some of your users, the unfortunate reality is that you can’t understand your users without having meaningful interactions with them. You can’t develop any kind of empathy without understanding what drives them, and what their needs are. They probably view the world very differently than you do and care about different things than you do. This means that you can’t think your way into their heads, you need to have discussions with them and let them tell you what they experience.

You can talk to them about your ideas, and gather their feedback. You can show them your mockups and have them talk through them. You can ask them to test your working software and watch them try to figure it out. Or more importantly, you can just sit down with them and discuss their needs, fears, and goals. Figure out what annoys them or keeps them up at night. These are the kind of interactions that form the basis of true empathy.

Finding relevant folks willing to chat can sometimes be a challenge. But if you’re solving a serious problem they have, then you should be able to find at least a few people eager to chat with you. The key is to look for them early, and engage them often. Your software will turn out immeasurably better for it.

If you’re nervous about talking to people, or you’re worried that you’ll do it wrong, I highly recommend checking out the book Talking to Humans. It is a quick read, and one of the best books I’ve come across on having effective user interviews.

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Comments (3)

  1. Hehehe… Go do frontline IT support for a while and it will cure you of all your misconceptions. People are FAR more simple minded on computers and IT than you are at all realizing.

    Furthermore, this issue extends to ALL complicated systems. They don’t have to be IT and they don’t even have to be that complicated. The VAST majority of people are very good at only a few or even one thing. Outside of that, they just move through life. The reason there are so many “renaissance men” in the IT world is most likely driven by the fact that we have to know so many different and varied systems that all the other things such as automotive, appliances and household maintenance and care are just natural extensions to the foundation built by our time in IT.

    I assure you that even the most brilliant doctor, unless their actual off work hobby is cars, is a complete dunderhead about their maintenance beyond anything more complicated than changing the oil. The differentiator for anyone in IT is that we are, at heart, generalists and interested in almost anything that seems even a little complicated and challenging.

    And yes, to your closing thoughts, we do need to engage them on what they want and need. But not as IT people. We need to wear an imagineers hat and a sales persons hat. The reason being is that most people aren’t creative enough (Imagination) and almost no one REALLY knows what they want (Sales). We need to remind people that the sky is the limit and that other than cost and time, there is nothing we can’t actually do for them. Sadly, what this really points to is that the average person is a minimalist by way of pessimism. Simply the way people will frame their need of a thing indicates this as most often when getting an application needs list, the emoted question is always formatted as a negative; that the solution won’t be able to do whatever it is that is needed.

    As for me personally, I was an active partner in designing and building my house. I do all my own vehicle maintenance. I do all my house maintenance. I do my own appliance installs and repairs. My hobbies include electronics, PC building, media servers, home theater builds and cars. I have been in IT for almost 30 years now and most of that is at or just below enterprise level work for a fortune 50. I have to watch my tongue when people ask questions as I have a LOT of, shall we call them muggle, friends and family and it is not hard to want to react poorly to what I would call “stupid questions”.

  2. In the 20+ years of development, I’ve noticed that it also depends on how close you work with you’re customer. At my first professional job building industrial control software, I would build prototypes of the UI and watch the end users try to navigate through without guiding as much as possible. when I notice them struggle on a feature or not be able to find something or even not be aware that there were more features, I would go back to design and rework these features. this was often a long process of small incremental changes, but I learned a lot on how the average person expected to interact with these critical systems.
    I still hold this true a few jobs down the line. whenever possible to get the end user involved early and take lots of notes, and continue to see if they have any issues months after release. I know this is not always possible with all industries or end products, but I do tend to have a much higher satisfied customer than many of my competitors.

  3. Thank you for writing this. I got a programming degree, got work in IT, and now I’m an instructional designer. I work with world-class engineers and economists – some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. I get to be the bridge between customers and the intellect at work.

    It is a struggle to get developers to see that their workflows aren’t the best models for customers. Internal processes used to build out software do not fit into either of the 2 scenarios you wrote about. Customers simply starting from a different screen will have quite a different experience than a developer. Customers may only need to perform a single function, so the tab names and descriptions of everything else may make it harder to see the simple things. Training gets built based on internal processes instead of user experience, and nobody knows why customers get stuck mid-stream in million-dollar projects.

    I would ask a ton of questions if I had to use an Apple watch, because I have not yet been exposed to the Apple watch (and woe to the person who thinks me stupid!). Curiosity is important and great and all, but I don’t wear watches. I don’t even like my iPhone that much… but, as soon as I have a need to know something, my phone will not be a barrier.

    With that said, my dad still will hand me his phone if I ask him to forward an email to me. Blinders can be frustrating. But if we want our noobs to act like experts, it starts with patience, good steps, and practice time. I make him do it, I walk him through the steps, I relate it to Replying. Alas, sometimes I need more patience than I can muster 🙁

    I’ve realized I could write a book, but I think I’ll write a blog post instead 🙂 Thanks for the inspiration… I haven’t written in a while!

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