You're probably less user-centred than you think

I mean it. You're probably less user-centred than you think.

I know that’s a provocative thing to say. But I'm not saying you don't care about users. I'm saying that you're probably more influenced by other things.

I've been using this triangle for a few years to explain why:

​Each of the points of the triangle represents a feedback loop that guides your craft. I'll use design as the example of a craft, but the same principles apply to a wide range of professions.

You sit somewhere inside the triangle. Whether that's nearer to your boss, your peers or your users? Well, there's the rub.

​Humans learn through feedback – we do a thing, then gather feedback that tells us whether to do more or less of that thing in the future. This way of learning leads to the awesome abilities of peak performers. But it's not infallible. When you combine our cognitive biases with the complexity of the modern world, it can also carry us off in unhelpful directions – even to ruinous superstitions.

Let me share an example of how this triangle works from when I was a young designer, starting out:

I cared about my boss paying me for my work above all else – whether that was my employer or a client. At that stage in my career, I was mostly working with clients and I had to make sure they were happy to pay for my work.

I cared about my peers recognising me as a Great Designer above all else. I’d seen the amazing, cool, groundbreaking work out there from all my heroes and I wanted to do work that awesome. I wanted to be accepted as a "Designer". (I even wore a black rollneck once upon a time. No, it didn't suit me.)

I cared about my users being able to use my designs above all else. I’d been bitten by the bug when I read Jakob Nielsen and then conducted usability tests on my design work with my friends. I wanted to make only things that were valuable and intuitive for users.

I was pulled in three directions by three groups of people. In theory, those three directions should all align, right?

But they didn't. They often don’t.

Let's look at each of the groups at the points of the triangle and their typical feedback loops:

Your boss: These people are an important source of feedback because they have power or influence over your income at work. They determine whether you get a raise, a bonus, or the boot. They could be a client, a manager, or even colleagues who input on performance reviews. You want to keep them happy, even though some of their feedback — and their whole way of thinking — is often at odds with ...

Your peers. This is the tribe you identify with. To quote Seth Godin, “people like me do things like this” and that's why your peers have so much influence. It's not money you get from your tribe – it's status. The status of belonging to the pack and maybe also the the status of leading the pack.

It feels so comfortable to do work that fits with the norms of your tribe: what does a good <designer/researcher/writer/CRO/product manager/CEO...> do? And if you're accepted and — ideally — considered a good one of whatever you do, you’ll have a future in the field. The pull of this feedback loop is subtle and powerful, even though the directions it pulls you in are sometimes at odds with ...

Your users. If you’re in UX, these people are literally in your job title. You talk about them all the time, you believe you’re a strong advocate for their needs, and your company even talks about being customer-obsessed or customer-centric. Yet, for millions of UXers, this feedback loop is almost silent compared to the other two.

Your users are outside the building. You see them once a week, once a month, once a quarter, maybe less – while you see your bosses and colleagues all day every day. And your users aren’t in the design community you hang out in – not at meetups, not on Slack, not on Dribbble. This distance is what pulls the user feedback loop into third place in your psyche. Your users don’t determine your bonus. Your users don’t judge your portfolio. Not directly, at least.

And while you get full body, full bandwidth, emotional feedback from your colleagues and peers, many companies actively make user feedback narrow and distant. They mediate the feedback through surveys or automated remote testing. They reduce the user to a disembodied voice and a cursor on a screen. Or — worse — a persona on the wall.

And that's why you're probably less user-centred than you think: because the volume of your user feedback loop is turned right down.

So I’m going to prod you to think about where you take your cues from right now, and how you could adjust the knobs.

It's hard to reduce the volume from your boss, but you can change your boss. Some bosses don't "get” craft or are genuinely hostile to users. If that's the case, I support you in finding a different boss.

However ... I recommend that you start by assuming it's you that needs to change. Designers in particular have a habit of overvaluing craft and aesthetics. Clues that it might be you: you think Ling’s Cars and Craigslist are bad design or you'd rather die than use Comic Sans.

It can also be hard to reduce the volume of your peer group because you're human. But you can change who you consider to be your peer group. I shifted from being a “designer” to being a “conversion rate optimiser”, a “user researcher”, an “evidence-based designer” and now a “product coach for complex adaptive systems” (ahem – pretentious working title). Every time I shifted who “my people” were, it had a huge effect on who I paid attention to, what norms and standards I operated by, and what I cared about most.

Quickest and most powerful may be to increase the volume from your users. This is challenging too, but rewarding. You’ll know the difference as soon you’ve immersed yourself in the messy depths of rich user research – like non-directed contextual interviews, or ethnographic field trips to homes or workplaces. These are full-body experiences, often emotional, sometimes confounding. Nothing like safe and controlled methods like analytics, surveys and evaluative user testing.

Look out for when you think things like “wow, this is so much more complex than we thought”, when you start finding more questions than answers, or when you feel the sting of your preconceived worldview peeling off your pre-frontal cortex.

Hit reply and tell me: what does your triangle look like at the moment? And what might you like to change about that?

Tom

Thanks to Corissa Nunn, Dan Turner and Daniel Slowacek for feedback on early drafts of this article.