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Let’s Get Curious!

I love being right.

I mean really love it. Being right is the most satisfying thing in the world.

I was the kid in class whose hand shot up FIRST to have the answer to the teacher’s question. The one who always knew the precise dictionary definition of that word you were using not-quite-precisely. The one who would fact-check your joke.

Studying philosophy in college only served to weaponize this tendency. Our papers were typically graded on how well we made an argument. And the first step of making that argument was always to define the terms. Learn to do this well and you can create a bulletproof argument because you have set the conditions of the universe in which your reasoning is valid.

And then I encountered the real world. And slowly, over time, I realized (or was encouraged by others to realize) that racing to demonstrate my rightness resulted in a few undesirable effects:

It made me very annoying.

It made me a very bad listener.

It increased the chance I was actually wrong.

The illusion of control

Being a designer (or an entrepreneur) means exercising control over a limited set of factors to create something new, and then sending your new creation out into the wider world over which you have no control. The real world doesn’t conform to any designer’s preferences, as much as we wish it did and bitch mightily when it doesn’t.

You can try to set terms, but that doesn’t necessarily work because those terms are often just assumptions. This design succeeds assuming the production team follows the required workflow. This design succeeds assuming that the people who attempt to use it understand the interface. This design succeeds assuming that the target audience is willing to switch from their current method of solving that problem. This design succeeds assuming Facebook doesn’t change their current strategy.

Unverified assumptions are simply wishes. And self-satisfied certainty is sadly not self-fulfilling. We’ve all encountered (or even had a hand in creating) products and services that held marvelous promise, but came with a set of embedded assumptions that did not sufficiently incorporate reality.

A couple years back Netflix tried to spin off their DVD-by-beloved-red-envelope service into a separate company called Qwikster. The folks in charge were confident in the rightness of their decision in the face of the emerging popularity of streaming media. But what Netflix defined as the “additional convenience” of totally separate websites and billing systems, the 12 million users with combined DVD and streaming accounts interpreted as “an assload of hassle”. In an assessment of convenience, the customer is most definitely always right. (What defines “convenient” is the key to an entire category of terrible assumptions worth studying.)

The fact that at the time of the announcement, the @qwikster Twitter account already belonged to a rowdy stoner was the icing on the failcake.

And we’ve seen products falter from the supply side as well—desirable from the user’s perspective, but completely unsustainable or onerous as a business, hence doomed. This may be worse than the simple disappointment of a bad solution when a significant number of real people have gone to the significant trouble of developing habits and attachments. And I’m not talking about business models in decline at the end of a long and glorious lifespan—pour a little for the venerable print newspaper—rather the shiny new products that demand attention, then disappear. Lately, this flavor of demise happens through acquisition and dissolution, as with the nifty Flipcam and roughly a thousand websites a week.

At the moment, the most distressing trend is the number of new online services quickly formed, funded, and launched at the wall like so many half-raw noodles, leaving a vague and messy impression in their wake. Maybe 80% of new products will always be destined to fail, but there are ways to improve the odds it won’t be yours. And these ways are what we call research.

But don’t let that scare you.

Say no to the yes-men

The best designed products and services are useful, delightful, profitable, and sustainable. Some of them even articulate needs previously unrecognized. And this is what we should all be striving for. Committing to create the best possible designs means exchanging short-term certainty for lifelong curiosity and cultivating a deep and genuine desire to be proven wrong.

Maybe this sounds simple and Alice-in-Wonderlandy and all, but in practice it’s excruciating. Ignoring what your target customers actually want or fudging what your existing organization can accomplish is quite simple and extremely satisfying. Often it is shockingly easy to find cheerleaders to back you up, so you (or they) don’t have to feel the gnaw of uncertainty.

Hype makes right, right? No.

We once worked with some very smart, experienced people who had built a very powerful semantic search tool with a lavishly impenetrable interface. At launch these very smart people were blindsided by the fact that many visitors who arrived at the site immediately left without even attempting to use the tool. “All of our accomplished, powerful CEO friends to whom we gave personal one-on-one demos said it was fantastic.”

It is painful to say “I don’t know.”

It is painful to think up something clever and fun and expose it to honest critique.

It is painful to admit to ourselves that each of us is small and that our success depends in large part on the whims of that wider world far beyond our control—that the answer may be out there rather than in here.

(OK, that might sound scary, but hang in there.)

Repeated exposure is the only thing that will diminish this pain:

Practice letting go and ceding control.

Practice asking and listening instead of asserting.

Embrace the opportunity to invalidate your assumptions as quickly as possible.

Your reward will be vital, often unexpected insights you can use an an input to your design process and decision-making. Paradoxically, admitting what you don’t know gives you more control over the situation.

A sharp poke in the why

Philosophy also offered a path out of isolated speculation—a tradition of criticism, of asking why, of focusing on the penetrating question rather than the pat answer. Even the weakest question has a longer shelf life than the most perfect answer.

These days I strive to hear “That’s a good question!” more often than “You’re right”. I try to see my responsibility as helping to find the true answers and the best solutions wherever they originate, not hoarding credit for my cleverness.

Just Enough Research cover

Unfortunately, I also think there is way too much ado about who has the right to ask which questions, and this dissuades many designers and developers from going there at all. You don’t need a PhD, you just need the will to think critically and a willingness to listen. (There will always be a need for design research specialists and academics. How and when to make the best use of their expertise, I’ll save for another time.)

And this is how I came to write a book about research. It’s called Just Enough Research, and I wrote it for you. This slender volume aspires to provide an easy entry point into the most immediately useful research principles and practices for everyone busy doing other things.

Just in time for your new fall wardrobe, the book comes out September 10, and I hope it raises some questions.