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Why Guess? A Familiar Screenplay



A client shows their consultant the progress they’ve made on a redesign. They want the consultant’s feedback before it’s too late.

Currently the user does A, then B, then C. Now the user will be able to do C, then A, then B. We don’t think we’ve been giving enough attention to C, so we put it earlier.

How often is C being used?

It’s by far our most popular feature. That’s why we want more people to use it.

What research have you done on how people are using it?

We haven’t really asked anyone about it, we can just see the data.

Consultant hangs her head in shame.



I’ve acted in this scene too many times. The client makes changes based on instinct and then wants my stamp of approval. This is their idea of doing UX. I mean, they asked my opinion, right?

This kind of client behavior means one thing: I’ve failed.

When I start working with a new client, it’s crucial that I convey to them that now that I’m here, they no longer have to guess. I coach them through my process, help them articulate their goals and principles, and build their capacity for empathy towards their customers and one another. At every step of the way this means asking more questions of themselves and everyone around them, and making decisions based on intel not intuition. In my world, assumptions are evil and the bad habit must be broken.

My client has a feature that is doing really well. They think it could be doing even better. They have three assumptions: (1) everyone can benefit from this feature; (2) those who aren’t using the feature must not be seeing it; and (3) the feature will still be valuable — maybe even more valuable — earlier in the process. None of these assumptions can be validated by quantitative data, which is the only input they have.

Yes it’s possible that moving the feature could increase its use. But a few bad things could happen too: It could end up being irrelevant at that stage in the process. It could be missing for those who are looking for it where they’re used to finding it. It could seem like it’s required or encouraged to use when it’s actually optional.

Could, could, could = uncertainty and risk. Why open yourself up to that kind of failure with a feature that’s already so successful?

I’m not saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ — in fact, I hate that saying. We should always strive for continuous improvement. But we’re never going to know how to make the right changes if we don’t first know why. Knowing why beats knowing how. In fact, knowing why tells you how. Why guess?

Knowing why requires asking people the right questions and then listening very carefully to their answers. You can’t intuit it from numbers no matter how hard you try.

But let’s be honest, most of the people in this business don’t actually want to talk to people at all. They work in technology so that they can create systems that will talk to people for them. Their technical skills are superior to their interpersonal skills, so they continuously fall back on what they know.

If we’re afraid to ask for help, reluctant to connect with our customers, and unwilling to challenge our intuition, guessing becomes a way of life, and success will always be something that comes to us by chance — not by choice.

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  • http://uxdude.com uxdude

    As part of an “internal” UX team, I play this part in nearly every project and feature request I get. Many times, the justification for so much pre-work is budget. Stakeholders feel they’re saving money by “doing some of the legwork for me.” Sometimes the information gathered IS good–especially if good business analysts do it–but those cases are rare, and I usually still need to do more user-centric research to fill in all the blanks. That proposition nearly always meets formidable resistance.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      What can you do to show them that it’s actually more costly not to use you? Speak to them in their language — show them the numbers!

  • http://www.thinkdesigninteract.com Tracey Halvorsen

    My favorite part of this post is: “But let’s be honest, most of the people in this business don’t actually want to talk to people at all. They work in technology so that they can create systems that will talk to people for them. Their technical skills are superior to their interpersonal skills, so they continuously fall back on what they know.”

    Overcoming this obstacle is the most challenging part of my job.

    The second part is constantly reminding people to tell me “why” not “how”. Everyone is in a rush to solve problems, but nobody wants to take the time to really examine them. Somehow they feel they aren’t doing a good job if they aren’t jumping to a conclusion or solution. I think it would be odd (albeit awesome) if I knew all the answers all the time – immediately.

    Keep up the insightful posts!

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Tracey, thank you for being such a faithful reader of this blog and for always having something so insightful to say. The passage you quoted was an afterthought written just before I published it, but looking back now it is probably the core of the problem. I need to learn to eat my own dog food and focus on fixing the cause, not the symptoms. Thank you for bringing that to light.

  • http://thesharepointmuse.com Marcy Kellar

    I encounter this too often. Your post reminded me why I do what I do and inspired me to keep fighting the good fight.


    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Thanks so much, Marcy! We need to stick together!

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