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Still listening

Listeninggirlsmall


I know I said we should listen to our outraged users. 

But I didn’t mean we should ignore all our happy, contented users as well.  Nor do I suggest that we pay attention to the folks who like some features, but dislike others.  (Ah, they inhabit the zone of mediocre reactions!)

Instead, we have to listen to them all, then show good taste in figuring out which of the voices have value to them.  Sometimes it’s the screamers that make the good points about your product (no matter how hard it is to get over the emotional tumult of their delivery), and sometimes it’s the quiet voices with the critical commentary.

Let me go all Zen on you for a minute and suggest that what you--as  skilled practitioners of software / product / services / education—need to do. 

Listen while being still.

My previous post about listening to the screamers was all about how to set aside your immediate emotional reaction to their delivery and look for the nuggets of truth and insight within the scream. 

The same is true for anyone who’s willing to give you some feedback.  Listen without reacting so you can hear the valuable bits of what they say. I know this means you have to do a little emotional work on your part, mostly suppressing your own reaction to their reaction… but you can do it.  If Spock can do it, so can you.

I mentioned the value of hearing someone describe my early software as “white, male, fascist.”  It stung to hear that.  That was a great example of listening to a screamer’s voice. 

But just a few weeks ago I was doing a field study, listening to a user talking about how hard it is to do some kinds of web searches. "I don’t know," she said, "I think there’s got to be a way to find this, but how?"

This was a busy Mom with three little kids (one in her arm as we were talking), a dog and the plumber all wandering through the house. Even though her house was busy, she literally spoke quietly and calmly. 

Of course, I could tell her how to use an advanced operator, maybe show her the advanced search page.  "Ah.. that’s it! I’ll show her the advanced search!"  I think to myself, "get her onto the road to being a power user." 

Proudly I showed how with one click she could get to a page with all kinds of power search features.  Tools that I knew would give her exactly the skills and capabilities she needed to do an instant, precise and potent web search.

"Oooh." She said, upon seeing that page with all the options. It wasn’t a happy "oooh" either.  I looked at her eyes to see what she was looking at, and I could immediately see that she didn’t know what to focus on, her eyes revealed the truth as they swept from side-to-side, looking for something familiar.  There are a lot of features and options on the page, perhaps a few too many.

So I asked a very non-techy question: "Umm… How do you feel about this?"   It’s a low-tech but high-touch question. It’s deliberately non-leading and open-ended. 

And she proceeded to talk for another minute about how that particular page was "scary and intimidating."   What do you know.

I’ve never thought about a web page, especially a search page, as being "scary" -- but here she was, telling me that it’s a frightening thing.  Unpacking WHY it gave her that moment’s pause has been the most illuminating thing I’ve learned this month. 

So the flip side of the screaming user is the user that says “ooh” in a quiet voice.  Those voices are important too. Our job is to hear all the tones and semitones in what our users are saying, and be still enough in ourselves to be able to understand what it all means. 

 

 

Posted by Dan Russell on November 21, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

Someone should tell that girl to keep her legs together in photographs!

W.

Posted by: wally | Nov 21, 2006 7:03:45 AM

Another excellent post, Kathy. It links in with Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox post this week. He feels that the Digital Divide that separates the Internet-connected from all the others will be tough to bridge. He identified three hurdles, economic, usability and empowerment. He was being somewhat US-centric when he said the economic can be overcome and then felt we know what to do when it comes to usability. He felt the biggest and possible impossible challenge was that empowerment problem, which is exactly what you're talking about.

I don't agree with him. If you're being customer-centric, it's your problem to figure out how to communicate with all your visitors. I think he was being over-simple in thinking he could cope with usability. Usability must be viewed from the bigger perspective that ensures that visitors also feel empowered by interacting with your website. You've just got to work harder at that, Mr. Nielsen.

Posted by: Barry Welford | Nov 21, 2006 7:57:40 AM

The still place of listening you refer to, Kathy, was the objective of a great deal of my training as a psychotherapist. Needless to say, it's harder than it looks/sounds to consistently maintain that kind of presence, but the rewards are great. As you say, truly understanding another's experience depends upon it. I recently wrote an article about related issues here:
http://www.uxmag.com/features/101/experiencing-and-designing-experience

Keep up the great work.

Posted by: Tom Guarriello | Nov 21, 2006 8:30:52 AM

Hey guys -- check the name at the end of the post. Wish I (Kathy) could take credit, but my long lost co-blogger Dan wrote this one. And he knows much more about user experience (and user experience research) than I (and most of the people on the planet) ever will, so I listen to everything he says.

Dan, you especialy had me at "semitones".. what a great companion to your "screaming users" post! And hey, where the hell have you been? Waiting for the muse? Geez.

OK, back to your comments folks... and if you like the post, it came from The Creating Passionate Users blog. If you don't, it came from Dan. ; )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Nov 21, 2006 8:48:43 AM

Well... it's a busy life, what can I say? I've run more than 50 user studies this year alone. That's a ton of data to look at (all videotaped and coded and noted nine-ways-to-Sunday). It keeps me off the streets. I've also been busy writing technical papers (in that oh-so-dry and dispassionate professional voice that drive me crazy), and doing strategy analyses for Google.

But thanks for pointing out that I wrote it, my co-blogger buddy (who writes 99.9% of all the postings)! I'm glad YOU liked it!

Posted by: Dan Russell | Nov 21, 2006 9:04:06 AM

I too missed the author name at the end of the post.

It's odd, but I never even realised it was there before. It's so small and unimportant looking, and doesn't seem part of the article. I guess my brain just glossed over it.

I think there's an element of that in your advanced search example. To people like us who do this stuff everyday, large numbers of options don't bother us, we know what we want and find it easy to ignore the stuff that's not important to us.

For someone like the Mom this is all new and needs attention and interpretation if she's to find what she needs. Suddenly it's much more complicated, but really it's down to the user's confidence.

Is there an easy way to help people gain the confidence us "old hands" seem to have more quickly, or do they just have to learn through experience, the way we did?

Posted by: Mike | Nov 21, 2006 9:30:08 AM

Great post Dan. Exploring real user experience is more than just sitting someone in front of some technology and writing down what they say. Observing body language, tone and behaviour is a much more useful way of obtaining real feedback.

Participants will also often tell you one thing (what they think you want to hear) but their actions reveal another. For example, they'll say a process makes sense while they are scraping the screen with their mouse desperately trying to figure out what to do next.

It's at that point you throw in the non-techy, non-judgmental, non-leading questions and get the real answers.

Still listening and *observing* are key to getting this right.

Posted by: Theresa Cunnington | Nov 21, 2006 6:09:54 PM

Listen while being still is a wonderful method.

There are many more potential aspects to listening, much easier to hear while still. Listening to what isn't said, to how different things are said, to body language, to discrepancies between what is said and what is done.

Hearing what a person is really thinking and feeling and hoping for can sometimes tell us more than the words they speak.

Vera

Posted by: Vera Bass | Nov 21, 2006 6:52:39 PM

"WHY?" is the most important analysis question ever. "WHY?" is the key to unlocking whatever amateur analysis the user has done on their own to reach their conclusion that "I need feature X", and then discovering the how user's needs are not being met. I have consistently gotten requests over the years to add a feature to copy formatted data to Excel. No big deal, but I always ask the requester "What do you need to do in Excel?" The answer to that question invariably leads to a description of some shortcoming of my software that the user wants to work around. So far, it has always been a better move to correct the shortcoming than to implement the export feature.

Posted by: Kiaser Zohsay | Nov 22, 2006 6:52:27 AM

Ok, who is the beautiful girl in the picture? We all want to know...

Posted by: dave | Nov 22, 2006 5:02:06 PM

Totally changing the subject ...
Head First OOA&D is now published!!
http://www.headfirstlabs.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=474

Posted by: Bill Mietelski | Nov 22, 2006 8:00:11 PM

I extend very best wishes from Canada to you, your family and friends for a wonderful, safe and happy thanksgiving!

Posted by: Sheamus | Nov 23, 2006 6:09:42 AM

I hate “white, male, fascist” software. Those stupid white men shouldn't be allowed to program. It's inferior. And fascist.

I am so grateful that I am tolerant and NOT a racist like those white, male, fascists. I think Kathy has a great blog and I read it often despite the fact she is, unfortunately, white (and thus inherently fascistic).

White Fascist Male Hater

Posted by: White Fascist Male Hater | Nov 23, 2006 10:56:12 AM

Thanks Kathy for the highlight, or I would have thought it's another excellent article written by you! :)

Great post Dan. The part on listening while being still resonates so much with me. Just the night before I asked my sister to proof-read an entry I've drafted and plan to post. She only zoomed past the first two sentences before she start shooting her comments, all negative ones :(

I wanted so much to defend my writing and view point, but I just told her why not finish the whole thing before she comment? Well, in the end I stopped this urge and the next wonderful thing happened! By being in it, and receiving her comments as constructive feedback (which they are no doubts!), I had this sensation of a totally different feeling! It's like "hey, it feels good to be listening to all these."

Then I gave birth to a new perspective. And I rewrote the entire post. All thanks to my best critic - my sister!

In case you might be interested, here's the post I'm talking about.

Look, My Abundance Of Wealth Is Coming!

Posted by: Kloudiia | Nov 24, 2006 12:47:45 AM

Sometimes it is impossible to listen to all your users because of their sheer number. In 'Democratizing Innovation' http://web.mit.edu/evhippel/www/democ1.htm Eric von Hippel argues that there is a specific group of users - 'lead users' - that create the most of new ideas.

Posted by: Zbigniew Lukasiak | Nov 24, 2006 3:29:30 AM

Someone tell Wally to keep his fingers away from the keyboard near blogs!

All that's been done for women's equality, and still morons like that persist.

Posted by: Mike | Nov 26, 2006 9:40:49 AM

Love the reminder to separate the emotional from the comment. One of my mentors calls the "screamer" a canary in the coal mine. Maybe they're not pleasant canaries, but it doesn't mean there isn't a problem.

Posted by: CogSciLibrarian | Nov 26, 2006 4:29:54 PM

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