Knowing your audience has long been touted as a key to success. Yet time after time, we find ourselves trying to speak with too broad of an audience, or making a product that tries to please everyone. In the end, it pleases no one.
There is no better example of knowing your audience than Fred Armisen.
Fred Armisen created Portlandia with Carrie Brownstein. This is a show rooted in making light of the quirky and free culture in Portland, Oregon.
Fred Armisen created Documentary Now with Bill Hader and Seth Meyers. This is a show that parodies the nuances of various documentary styles and tropes.
Fred Armisen recently released a Netflix comedy special, Standup for Drummers. This is a whole comedy special with inside jokes aimed at, you guessed it… drummers.
It’s not that Armisen finds a narrow audience that is desperate for attention. It’s that he finds HIS audience. The projects Armisen chooses to pursue are things that interest him; places he loves, skills he admires, and experiences he shares. Watching him interact with his narrow audience is the realest kind of real. And you can feel it.
Because his real audience is himself.
“There’s something that I can’t describe about the city [Portland] that I really love – just physically – how it feels to walk around there, and have coffee there. Also, the way that it’s a little overcast sometimes. Something about Portland just really resonated with me.” – Fred Armisen
You don’t have to be part of the inner circle. I encourage you to watch Standup for Drummers. Even though you may not get every joke (I didn’t), you get lured in by Armisen’s passion, his prose, his charisma talking about the funny-to-him aspects of something he appreciates.
But what I really want to challenge you with is this.
Don’t try to make the next extremely profitable thing. Don’t attempt to create the next disruptive to the industry thing. Don’t go make the thing you think everyone will want.
Make something that is important to you, on the deep down soul level. Make something about another thing you love. And then… share it with people just like you.
Your realness. Your soul. Your connection with the topic and the people who share the same connection. It will all shine.
Shaken, but emotionally under control, Bryan Mills (played by Liam Neeson) picks up the phone and talks to his daughter’s captor.
“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom I can tell you I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career.” – Liam Neeson, Taken
Like Liam Neeson’s character, I don’t have all the answers. It’s actually very cathartic to admit. Let’s say it together. Ready?
“I don’t have all the answers.”
In creative or innovative work, we sometimes feel like we should come up with new and interesting solutions on the spot. And if we can’t, no one is harder on us than ourselves. But we don’t have all the answers, nor should we.
We should have are all the questions.
Ok, maybe not ALL the questions, but a pretty good list and the skill to keep asking. At least we can channel our inner child and ask “Why?” over and over. Seriously, that’s a proven tactic. So if asking questions is the fast track to empathy, why do we feel compelled to know the answer ahead of time?
I don’t know.
Anticlimactic I know, but it’s true. I’ve asked myself many times, so I’m beginning to know why for me. But this is a personal quest. A side quest to be sure, but a personal one.
Let me give you some starter questions:
Do I feel like I need to prove my innovative spirit or creativity by readily spouting out solutions?
Do I feel others are expecting immediate and ground-breaking ideas?
Do I feel like my value drops if I have to “figure it out” in the conversation?
Is it related to stress, anxiety, impostor syndrome, and my fight or flight reflex?
One of my favorite shows is Sherlock (the one with Benedict Cumberbatch). Sherlock Holmes is a character that seems to have the answer to everything, even to problems we didn’t know existed. But the show does a masterful job of showing how Sherlock’s mind (albeit fictional) works.
Time slows. We enter Sherlock’s mind. We see him call out the wet spot on the sleeve of a woman’s jacket. He internally questions how her sleeve got wet.
I try to engage my own Sherlock mode; slow it down, ask the questions.
Silence is Golden
We don’t have to shout out answers immediately. Amazing things happen when you listen and offer your ideas last. Check out this video where Simon Sinek talks about being the last to speak.
It doesn’t make us less valuable to say “I don’t know, but I want to. Help me understand.” Asking questions improves our learning. That’s why schools are promoting critical thinking and project-based learning (which involves lots of questions).
So we need to take a cue from Liam Neeson and create our own Taken-inspired, problem-facing monolog.
“I don’t know what your problem is. I don’t know what your jobs to be done are. If you are looking for a solution I can tell you I don’t have one… YET, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very amazing career. Skills that make me a nightmare for problems like this. If you will answer my questions, that’ll be the start of it. I will look everywhere for insight, I will pursue each hypothesis, I will create tailor-made solutions for you, and I will go forth and be awesome.”
Every cloud has its silver lining. At least that’s what were told, usually when things go bad. There has to be a nugget of hope somewhere. I can only imagine that thought ran through Jerry Sternin’s mind when he visited Vietnam in 1990. As part of Save the Children, Sternin was there to help the malnourished.
You see, at the time in Vietnam, nearly 65% of children under the age of 5 were malnourished. Water quality and poverty were known problems, but not something Sternin could fix. And he only had limited time before his visa expired. Not exactly fertile grounds for silver linings.
Picture a stream in the woods; twisting, turning and babbling. Until a stray boulder blocks the flow. In innovation, we commonly see user experience flows that abruptly halt due to pain points. As humans on Earth, we experience them first hand. As innovators, we are quick to seek empathy and design new solutions.
But focusing on only the pain points causes two problems.
The first is that you miss the hidden problems. During World War II, The Army Air Force asked Abraham Wald to figure out where to put more armor on their bombers, in order to survive more flights. They showed Wald, part of the Statistical Research Group, where bullet holes grouped on various parts of planes that returned home. Wald instructed them to place more armor where the bullet holes weren’t. You see, planes with holes in those areas, don’t make it back to be analyzed. This was the hidden problem.
The second is that you miss hidden solutions. The woodland stream, without your interference, may find its own solution to the rocky intruder. It may divert its flow, pool around, or erode away until it can burrow through. This is where Jerry Sternin comes back in.
He didn’t impact nutrition for the children in Vietnam by instituting changes. He looked for positive deviance. He was searching for outliers who had access to the same resources as the 65%, but somehow their children were healthy. And sure enough, he found them. They were making small adjustments to the diet, very simple adjustments. We’d call them lifehacks and they’d get on all kinds of top ten lists on social media. But Sternin did not have the power of Buzzfeed or Facebook. Instead he had the families with the positive deviance hold cooking classes with the other families. Doers impacting doers.
Next time you are digging in to gain empathy as part of your Design Thinking framework, or examining pain points and jobs to be done as part of your Value Proposition Design, be on the lookout for that positive deviance. Include questions into your user interviews in search of outliers of outrageous fortune. Your designed solution has much to learn by the handcrafted workaround by the user. If they solved it without you, you need to give them a reason to solve it with you.
“I’ve got so many MBAs, but what I need is a poet. Poets are the original systems thinkers.” -Max DePree
Poetry uses “condensed or compressed form to convey emotion or ideas to the reader’s or listener’s mind or ear” as defined by Poetry.org. Which felt like the perfect site to define poetry at. If we re-word it a little, we get “the shortest path that gives a desired feeling to the user”. Just extrapolate that “feeling” out to include usability a perception of value, and good poetry becomes good user interface and experience design.
Now, this is a new analogy to me, something that I am going to try on my next prototype. I am going to design the user interface and experience through the lens of poetry. I will link to my findings here (when they exist). However some key components of poetry feel ripe for picking when designing.
Imagery in poetry actually relates to the five senses (not just relying on images). What are ways that a good user-centered design uses imagery? The friction felt when moving components around that gives it a real feeling. The audio cue when an action is triggered. Even the icons selected play a part in the overall imagery scheme.
Poetic rhythms range from the famous iambic pentameter to the unknown by name (but you totally know it when you hear it) anapestic tetrameter. Rhythm plays such a huge part that a lack of rhythm is used to create its own feeling. What kinds of rhythms do we create in our designs? Can we keep the user in a good flow state? Do we break the rhythms to call their attention to important pieces? I envision a UX rhythm being the user experiencing the entirety of the innovation, with each major beat striking true.
Word Association & Connotation
In an effort to be concise, poetry uses what the read brings along with them to add extra meaning to words. Each word chosen by the poet is specially selected to bring across a bouquet of feeling to the reader, without writing the bouquet in. This is the “show, don’t tell” writing advice. Clearly a UX can use an envelope to signify email, and a disk to represent saving, but what other rich connotations can we bring? One word of caution here: this requires some strong empathy and knowledge of your core user if you are going to rely on the baggage they bring to tell your story.
First of all, its just fun to try to say “enjambment”. Enjambment is breaking up a line in poem across two lines to create a sense of anticipation and intrigue.
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and asleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”
Endymion by John Keats
Notice that the three middle lines can’t even stand by themselves. The line break pauses the reader in extracting meaning from what they are reading. How can we use enjambment in great UX UI design? Where do we need to create pauses or breaks that are beneficial to the user? Can we leverage that anticipation into a positive feeling while using our product?
This is used over and over and over to drive a point home. Poetry uses it to call out the important stuff or bring certain images back into view. A good design uses repetition to make sure the user is comfortable knowing when and how to take action. But when does repetition lead to boredom? Maybe this has some parallels to rhythm?
I don’t have the answers yet. But I’m willing to try to find them. Like I said, this is a new lens / analogy for me and one I’m eager to test out. If you test it out or already think of it this way, let me know! I’d love to start a conversation around Poetic UI UX Design.
My kids send me strong signals all the time. For example, when we have broccoli or sweet potatoes, they respond with very strong signals. Unfortunately their signals are strong AND negative. One way we’ve tried limit these anti-veggie reactions is to get them involved in the meal planning.
Like in meal planning, we should be looking for strong signals with prototype tests. Strong signals validate that solutions are worthy of digging into deeper. Sometimes, you will get responses of “I don’t like this” or “I’m not sure this will work.” These are great strong signals, just not the ones you may have been looking for. Their value though can be immense.
Looking at the Diffusion of Innovation, these types of strong signals would be achieved from folks in the “Late majority” category. That accounts for 34% of the market, and yet we design by relying on “Early Adopters” or the “Early Majority”. How can we move their timeline of adoption up? How can we use their strong signals, and their personas, to help make our prototype better?
We can design with them!
Wrangle up some of those “This will never work” naysayers and get them in an ideation session. You can often get them to agree by just being honest. No need for trickery or bribes. Just tell them that you’re sorry your one idea didn’t fit for them but you’d like to understand their view better.
“Great! Now I have all the people who hated my prototype in one room. What do I do now?”
It is simple, just understand these three guidelines.
Let the customer drive the conversation
You must aim for a 80-20 ratio of listening to talking.
Listen to understand, not to react.
This is a personal pet peeve, but too often we listen with the intent of reacting to what someone says. Especially here where you’ve already show the customer a solution. They will say “Well I need it to do X.” and you’ll want to say “Well what I showed you will already do X, you may have missed it.” AVOID THIS! Internalize that thought but come back to them with something like “Interesting. When it does X, what does that look like to you?”
Reiterate what they say if you are unclear.
Remove any uncertainty.
You may need to set up the ideation session with some easy wins up front to grease the gears of innovation.
Keep their options limited
Too many options and they will freeze up. It’s a cousin of the “blank page” syndrome.
Constraints can also help people be creative.
It’s like squeezing a tube of toothpaste. Applying pressure, with the constraints of the rest of the tube, pushes the paste onto the brush.
Nothing needs to be pretty
An “ugly” prototype or a napkin sketch keeps the customer from thinking the idea is set in stone.
Thinking everything is “up for change” frees them up to make more suggestions.
Encourage them to take a crack at some wireframes.
You will hear “I’m not good at drawing” but we’re not looking for art here, just ideas. You can offer to draw for them if this is a sticking point.
I’m not saying you’ll end this process with a market-capturing design. But you will have a better understanding of the needs, the pain points, and the potential gains for your innovation with the Late Majority. Imagine if you can inspire the Late Majority to adopt sooner!
My great friend, Joseph Greaser, posted an excellent write up about understanding your audience. Especially when it comes to innovation. You can read all about his case study and data that illustrate this point clearly. Read his post, follow his blog, and then come right back.
The next time you are stuck needing some small talk, here’s a little trivia for you. The average elevation for the state of Arizona is roughly 4,100 feet. Yet that fact covers up a big hole in the data. Actually, one of the biggest holes. The Grand Canyon is also in Arizona. Its elevation bottoms out at only 70 feet in the canyon. Now you’re saying “Of course it glosses over the Grand Canyon. That’s what an average does. It smoothes over the really high peaks and really low valleys.”
So then why do we use the average when trying to understand your customer?
The whole point of understanding your customer is to understand their pain points, their usage, and what innovations they would gain from. But if we keep just looking at average data to “get a feel” for how the whole group is using your prototype, then you could be missing grand canyons of opportunity.
Let’s change the lens for this. Imagine you are a teacher and you are looking at the grades for your students at the end of the year. Half of your class ended with a grade of 100%, the other half ended with a grade of 50%. Would you just average them out and say that your class earned a 75%? You wouldn’t unless you wanted to be looking for a different line of work in the fall. No, you would see two distinct “user-groups” in your classroom. Regardless of grade, both user-groups need your attention.
You would work hard to understand why it wasn’t working for your 50-percenters. You would try new things, different strategies, and observe to identify their pain points. Even your 100-percenters need you. You need to observe them as well to find what is working, try to push them to new territory, and give them some challenges. You would be doing so much to understand your students.
Similarly in innovation, we must journey to the bottom of data canyon to understand our customers.
Let’s look at what the average leads us to. Based on analytics, a website was tracking an average of 5 minutes per session duration. Remembering what we can about averages from freshman year, we imagine the graph to look like this beauty.
Yet, through the magic of mathematics, this graph is also equally likely and just as valid.
Whoa! Talk about two completely different use cases for this website. Let’s put the graphs together to get the whole picture.
Only in some cases would innovating for the average actually provide some benefit to our customers. There are other valid cases where innovating for the average wouldn’t benefit the customers at all. Talk about wasted time, development, and effort.
Another great example of this is to look at the Diffusion of Innovations curve. Ignore the extremes for now and look at what aiming for the average would get you. You would be nestled between the Early Majority and the Late Majority of customers. Your innovation would be targeting a user-group that is torn between being scared and skeptical of change. They would be wanting to get something out of your innovation, but at the same time they just don’t want to get left behind.
So what is a good innovator to do? One thing that we are always fond of is looking for micro-patterns instead of macro-solutions. Macro-solutions are the golden bullet, “this will work for everyone” type of product. These have their benefit in some instances but not when you are trying to understand your customers. Remember that averages smooth out the mountains and canyons that customers experience. Macro-solutions need averages to survive.
Micro-patterns help shed light on your customer personas. Go back to the classroom scenario, even though it is simplistic. Just looking at the grade data beyond the average shows us that their are at least two distinct customer personas in the class. It is ok to have multiple personas as long as you understand that they have different needs and desires from your product. The students with 100% grades have different demands from the classroom than the students with 50% grades. Your job as the innovator is to decide which group to innovate for.
The more complex your data is, the more micro-patterns there may be… and this is ok. Complex is neither good nor bad, it just is. As an innovator you aren’t here to judge numbers, you’re here to listen to their stories. And stories can be as deep as the Grand Canyon sometimes, but you have to make the trek to the bottom via mule to truly understand the customers there. Don’t let the shiny averages distract you with their homogenous targets for innovation.
Challenge: Take a look at some data for your innovation.
What are some of the shiny, yet deceiving, averages that exist?
Dive deeper into your data. Are your averages glossing over some of the customer stories?
Try to identify the different, distinct user-groups for your innovation. List their pain points.