The Value of Generative Research

The other day I spoke with a friend whose father suffered from an illness that has left him physically altered, and she told me how these perceived limitations have affected the state of his emotional wellbeing. From her telling of it, it’s hard for her father to imagine that he will one day be in a better mental state than he is today.

This failure to imagine a future state being different than our current state has been described as “projection bias” by one of my teachers, George Loewenstein. I think it’s among the most pervasive biases that impact decision making on a daily basis. Accordingly, it has implications for how we innovate.

Feature-First or Problem-First

I was in a meeting the other week with a CEO who wants to innovate on the way that people engage in conversations online. He framed his product’s “user experience” problem thusly: if we want people to have conversations around content, should the commenting be in-line or at the bottom of the page? How do we create an incentive for people to add comments? How do we make it so that when we get a lot of comments, they don’t appear unmanageable? His expectation was for me to pick up a pencil and sketch out solutions.

Often times, I hear people talking about products and services by describing the features of a product. In this “feature-first” approach, they describe the feature they need to create and how it should work (or doesn’t work).

I think a lot of people are conscious around the problems associated with a feature-first approach, and understand the value of addressing the question of creating solutions from a problem-first understanding.

The CEO insisted that there are a limited set of design solutions for commenting and replying. I agreed that while he and I had both seen a limited set of design patterns for enabling conversation, his product needed a contextual solution. I asked him these questions:

– Who is it that wants to engage?
– What kinds of conversations do these people want to engage in?
– What are their goals?

The truth of designing a product with the confidence that it will be desired, valued, and used is that great design is not about how the button the user should press appears, and where exactly the user writes in their comment. It is not, primarily, that the webpage strikes a person’s subjective tastes as being “beautiful”.

The truth of designing a product with confidence is about the whole reason that the user is there on the site. It is what captures their eye, it’s what the person is looking for. It’s what they see that they really connect with.

Beginning a Process

When I started my career in 2011, I was on a Labs team at Tagged, tasked with creating the next hit social apps. As we spun up ideas for different social products, we were able to define coherent products that had beginning, middle, and end points for interaction, and had a way to re-engage users. But what we left undefined was who the product was for, what the person wanted or needed to do, and where it fit into their life. I call this product approach “inside-out”. We were coming up with ideas inside our four walls and pushing them out to the world.

A little while into the existence of our Labs team, Janice Fraser came in and changed the way I thought about product development. She took a blank sheet of paper and divided it into four quadrants: Name, Demographics, Behaviors, Goals. She was demonstrating a system of hypothesizing who our users were.

Her next lesson had a deceptively simple appearance: drawing four or five clouds on a piece of paper, and filling those in with major themes that we would address in interviews with people, in order to validate or invalidate our persona hypotheses. She was attempting to teach us that the interviews could be guided by main topics but had to be sufficiently open-ended to allow us to understand a person’s life as it actually existed.

Since then, I’ve led every product effort with an adapted process of designing for people, and being sure to ¬†identify “design targets” before starting to sketch interactions. This process involves working with the rest of the product or other user-touching teams to generate hypotheses about the lives of our users.

The process of accurately validating these hypotheses–that is, having a good grasp on actual behaviors that people engage in and identifying patterns among different individuals–is bolstered by leveraging research and reflections coming out of the branch of psychology known as Judgment & Decision-Making, in addition to the work of other psychologists, notably Carl Rogers, Leon Festinger, and Kurt Lewin. I intend to explore these methods and insights further in this Ideas section.

The synthesis of matching an understanding of behavior and attitudes with the development of products and services has been best laid out by Alan Cooper in About Face. It is, to my knowledge, the clearest guide for the product perplexed.

Motivation to Engage in the Process

The CEO was apprehensive to engage in a process of going outside of his walls because he wasn’t sure what he would find. He asked me, for example, what I would do if I observed no behaviors for the users he believes are his targets. Maybe this was a fear of his. I pushed back. There will always be some attitudes and behaviors, I told him, but we can’t know what they are until we’re with the person and we ask the questions.

Similar to this are our intimate relationships, where we have a strong desire to achieve a state of success, but playing out scenarios in our heads are never reflective of the reality that will ensue when we engage, and be present, with another person. It is ultimately easier to ask the questions of a person than to try to imagine these futures.

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