Be your user?

A few years ago I remember reading an interview with with either Ev Williams or Jack Dorsey about the early days of Twitter when something like the following was said. The reason Odeo, the podcast service that spawned Twitter, was never a success was that nobody in the team really listened to podcasts and so while they were building it to the best of their abilities they weren’t ever using it themselves so couldn’t see the problems.

The reason this popped in to my head was that I really like the idea of doing a ‘Digital by Default’ podcast interviewing people from the digital public/civic sector. Except like those Odeo guys back in the day I don’t actually listen to podcasts so am wondering why I would create something I wouldn’t actually listen to myself? [I think it is a good idea still but maybe I’ll go for written email/IM interviews like I did for Mozilla years ago?]

It also is a factor in my day job. I think part of the reason it has taken me longer than usual to really get under the skin of our website is that I am not any kind of user of our content. While I was never a medical researcher or e-learning practitioner I had a much better understanding of the audiences and the tasks they undertook. These days I rely more than ever on our user research and feedback which is great but I think I need to better understand the motivations of our users and their frustrations and to do that I need to become a user myself.

The Marissa Mayer profile I linked to recently also mentioned how “she would recreate the technological circumstances of her users in her own life. Mayer went without broadband for years in her home, refusing to install it until it was also installed in the majority of American homes. She carried an iPhone at Google, which makes Android phones, because so did most mobile Web users.” Putting herself in the place of her user to better represent them.

I’m going to be honest I am a little at a loss as to just how I am going to manage this – I think maybe a little data journalism side project? Will have to give this some thought.

7 responses to “Be your user?”

  1. I vaguely remember that piece about Odeo too, and I remember thinking at the time that while it was obviously completely right, it was even more obviously completely wrong. You can’t be a representative user of your service (whatever that may be), because you are an insider and a producer, so you wouldn’t respond like actual users, even if you were like them in all other respects, which you are almost certainly not (and of course I don’t just mean you, I mean all of us). I wrote quite a long piece on that a couple of years ago.

    I read something much more recently (I miss Google Reader for its searchable archive more than anything else) arguing that not just the design but the subject matter of software development was badly skewed by developers assuming that they were typical of the population they wanted to sell to.

    So trying to understand your users as best you can is absolutely the right thing to do. But don’t beat yourself up for not being one – and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you might become one.

    Or to borrow an analogy from another past post, we are not the passsengers, at best we are bus conductors, but more realistically we are bus drivers – we may be on the same bus as the passengers, but we are having quite a different experience.

  2. Podcasts can be amazing, and there are definitely some amazing examples out there. I do listen to them, but none on work topics, they’re all things of interest. I made the mistake of putting some together that missed the personal touch that make podcasts really listenable. I hate people who link to blogs in comments, but here is one on my experience (sorry) –

    In terms of a good example of a podcast in work context, I really like this 1 – I love how both Chris and Helen are passionate about their work. I also think this approach works – I don’t know of many people who go to Audioboo or Soundcloud just for Podcasts, but embedding in other content seems to work well.

    Thanks for the post, it’ll be great to hear more about how you take this forward.

    – Dyfrig

  3. I like the bus driver idea – I think I’ll use that one 🙂 The reality is I’ll never be a real user – I am not a statistician and without even a GCSE in maths to my name that isn’t likely to change! I just need to get a little better acquainted with things (little being the key there!)

    Re the RSS search thing – the new Feedly search seems decent on the paid accounts – glad I upgraded.

  4. I listen to a bunch of podcasts, mostly web related and find them a great way to consume on the move. With that said I really like the interviews on the great discontent site and wonder if that style may be something your interested in.

    A few months ago I started to produce a few written interviews from a skype recording but decided I was too lazy to transcribe and edit…. so I just published the audio 🙂

  5. That said on closer inspection the Great Discontent site is a lovely idea & very nice format – though I do wonder how people get these things sponsored!

  6. I’ve often felt the same and agree that it is crucial to be able to get inside your users’ heads.

    I am responsible for a company outside of work, which means I have some understanding of BIS users, but the most useful thing I have found is to just speak to users. Invite them in for testing, meet them in the pub, tweet them etc.

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