I’ve been telling people for years that thinking is hard work. At the end of a day building an affinity when everyone’s brain is completely fried even though all they’ve done for the day is stick Post-its on the wall—“See, thinking is hard work!” I say with a chipper smile, and everybody hates me.
This week I recognized that changing your mind is hard work too. I’m not talking about simple “I’ll have tuna fish today instead of salad” changing your mind. I mean learning to look at the world in a new way.
Of course, changing minds is the business we’re in. People don’t need our help to keep doing things the way they’ve always done them. People don’t need customer data to keep building what they’ve always built. The value we bring is in giving you a new way to look at the world. Even if we’re just working on a usability improvement, no one builds an unusable interface on purpose. People build unusable interfaces because they are looking at the world the wrong way. Usually, because they are looking at the world as an engineer, instead of as a user.
So… we were doing a vision this week. This is the part of Contextual Design where we’re done collecting and consolidating data and we’re finally allowed to invent new designs and new function. We’re finally able to set our creativity free. This is supposed to be the fun part.
And our vision wasn’t going smoothly. It wasn’t going badly, but the team wasn’t able to loosen up and invent. They’d add a piece to the vision and then they’d have to stop and discuss it. I’d bring them back to the vision, they’d add another piece, and then they’d stop and discuss that. It was a much slower and more painful process than I wanted it to be.
But, of course, it’s not about me. It’s about the team. And for the first time I recognized what was really going on here. We were building a vision, yes—but the real problem for the team was that the data was telling them that their current approach to the problem wasn’t going to work. This is a company with a lot of history and a lot of success with highly complex solutions for highly technical professionals. They’re trying to extend their product to amateurs and ordinary folk—and every single assumption, expectation, and habit they have built up over 20 years is wrong.
I’ve known people in this situation shut down and refuse to listen. To their credit, my team didn’t do that. But inventing a design that would really work for these users was forcing them to change their mind—was forcing a paradigm shift. Every time my team stopped visioning to discuss with each other, I could almost see them tearing at the walls in their own minds, opening windows, creating new ways of seeing the problem—which enabled them to invent new approaches in their vision. It was maybe less fun, but it was absolutely the vital work this team needed to do to invent a successful product.
Will they succeed? I don’t know. They’ve succeeded in making the customer data their own, and seeing in a new way. Now they have to teach their organization to see the world the same way, and that’s a hard task. The data will help—it’s pretty compelling when it’s spread out over all four walls of a room. But it will be a big stretch for the company and maybe they’ll choose to go back to the products they’re familiar with.
But they won’t go in blind—they won’t put together a product that can’t work for these users only to watch it fail in the marketplace. They won’t waste a boatload of money and an immeasurable quantity of passion and commitment building a product preordained to fail.
For today, that’s enough.