Drawing inspiration outside of the world of technology has helped me position problems and solutions to a wider audience.
One source of inspiration I came upon sevral years ago was Charles W. Mills who published “The Sociological Imagination” in 1959.
Mills described the time in which he was living as the “age of fact”. He suggested that what people needed was a quality of mind to help them use information to balance out what was going on in the world with their purpose.
To do so, Mills argued that the individual should try to imagine their own personal troubles juxtaposed to the issues of both the larger society and time in which they were living.
Troubles occur within the character of the individual and within the immediate range of [their] immediate relation with others; they have to do with [their] self and with those limited areas of social life of which [they are] directly and personally aware…A trouble is a private matter: values cherished by an individual are felt by [them] to be threatened.The Sociological Imagination by Charles Wright Mills 1959
Issues have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the range of [their] inner life…An issue is a public matter…Often there is a debate about what that value really is and about what it is that really threatens it.
Imagining the Individual Versus the Group
Studying Mills’ work at length has allowed me to ask better questions to customers, gain access to employees for user research while also supporting product managers in making measurable design outcomes.
First, consider the changes in purple below that shift the mental model of the individual to the customer within the context of their business.
Troubles occur within the character of the [customer] and within the immediate range of [their] immediate relation with others; they have to do with [their] title and with those limited areas of [professional] life of which [they are] directly and personally aware…A trouble is a private matter: values cherished by an individual are felt by [them] to be threatened.
Next, consider the changes, again in purple, that shift the mental model of issues in society to those of the users of products and services.
Issues have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of the [users] and the range of [their] inner life…An issue is [an organizational] matter…Often there is a debate about what that value really is and about what it is that really threatens it.
Finally, take time to ponder these two ideas within the context of your own company.
I’ve learned that companies mirror both the individual and society. One cannot separate the invididual (customer) from society (users) as they are inextricably linked.
Bridging the Divide Between Wants and Needs
In my experience, customers express what they want out of a product. Whereas users express what they actually need.
A want from a customer usually translates into an ask for more of something.
Adding onto the product. Providing more choice. Bringing in yet another option to the main navigation. Creating an additional feature within the feature… and the list goes on and on.
A need from the user usually denotes concerns experienced using the product, such as: “There are too many choices”; “I can’t find that information; “I don’t understand how to get from here to there”; or more often than not, “I don’t have time to do this and my job!”
In stark contrast to the concern of the customer, the user is ultimately asking for less, not more. Many best practices – both in design and how humans process information – come in the form of taking away choice.
Couple this with the demand to follow the data and move faster one can easily forecast increased tensions across the organization over time.
With all that in mind how can we confidently help articulate the specific troubles of the customer, while clearly illustrating the issues experienced by users?
Setting The Stage
Over the years I’ve met with hundreds of users and customers, globally. I’d like to share one approach that uses the sociological imagination to compare and test the troubles expressed by the customer against issues experinced by users.
After clearly understanding expected outcomes of product managers – in addition to the opportunities for change throughout the platform with engineering – I organize a meeting with customers.
The purpose of this first meeting is to set the stage for building trust with key stakeholders. Outcomes are repeatable and measured both quantitatively and qualitatively.
Meeting Agenda and Process
The agenda that I send out lets everyone know that the meeting is designed to be fun and interactive with clear outcomes:
- 10:00am “The Floor Is Yours!” I’d like you to share any experience with our product. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
- 10:30am “Help Me Understand” At this point I’m going to ask individuals and the group to clarify what I’ve heard. Your participation will be requested.
- 10:50am “Next Steps” Let’s set a time to meet in the next two weeks that work best for everyone.
- 10:55am “Let’s learn from users” I will be creating remote user research for you to share with your users. When we meet again, I’ll share the results and see if your troubles align with the issues of your users.
- 11:00am Thank you and reach out any time! [insert my email, mobile, etc.]
Understanding Customer Troubles
In my experience allowing customers an open floor to share any and all experiences provides them a safe space to both vent and share joyful outcomes.
My role is to not tell them or sell them on anything. No judgement is ever be expressed. I’m there to listen.
When they start to open up and share, I immeidately begin taking notes focusing on repeated key words or phrases that come up again and again.
Once they have finished sharing, I review repeated experiences and ask them to define points such as, “our users demonstrate a clear ‘lack of engagement’ with your product.”
To ensure there’s no one individual influencing others, I ask them to write out their answers. They can use a piece of paper, their phone, whatever is at hand and easy.
Giving everyone one minute to complete this task, I then have everyone share what they’ve written. No one is allowed to comment or question any responses until everyone has shared.
In all the years running this and related exercises I’ve never come across a team that is aligned on what are key contextual troubles. Even when that “team” is made up of just two people.
What I’m doing by following this process is creating a state of cognitive discconance. The customer can’t suggest we aren’t delivering if they aren’t in agreement on the basic defintion of what constitutes greater engagement, for example.
To keep the meeting on time I tell them I’ll be sending them notes on our discussion for their consideration at our next meeting. By doing this I’m letting them know that the learning doesn’t stop at this meeting, we’re going to keep talking so I don’t make any incorrect assumptions.
Learning About User Issues
I then shift the focus to the issues of their users. I ask questions such as, “I think I’ve got a good understanding of the troubles you’re experiencing. Can you tell me, do these troubles align with any issues you’ve heard from your users?”
In many cases they quickly realize they have made assumptions about things like a “lack of engagement” based on their own experience. Using Mills’ construct, they are assuming the reasons users are not engaging with the product have specifically to do with their own troubles, not specific issues expressed by users.
In the last 5 minutes I provide quick examples of online user research in a link I’ll be sending them. I ask them to send this link to their users. This research will specifically test the customers assumptions and provide talking points for the next conversation.
This also allows me to lead future meetings to set up times for discussion and further qualitative research with users that provide insight to both the goals of the business and the troubles of the customer.
If you take what Mills has proposed perhaps there’s a way for you, regardless of your position or title, to ask better questions that demonstrate the value of the wants of the customer versus the needs of the user.
Aligning on what’s true from the perspective of the customer and their users, supercedes other preferences. Of course, this is no easy task because we’re working with people to try and complete complex outcomes, quickly.
Acknolwedging this reality, consider other key terms that Mills defined to explain why people behave in specific ways based on their feelings and values:
- When people cherish some set of values and do not feel any threat to them, they experience well-being.
- When they cherish values but do feel them to be threatened, they experience a crisis – either as a personal trouble or a [team] issue.
- If all their values seem involved, they feel the total threat of panic.
- If people are neither aware of any cherished values or experience any threat then that experience is one of indifference.
- If that indifference involves all of their values, then that experience becomes one of apathy.
- If they are unaware of any cherished values, but still are very much aware of a threat then that is the experience of uneasiness or anxiety.
While we can usually solve for the complex through data, we should start by acknowledging the tangled bank of experiences that shape individuals and society.