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"be surprising yet self-evident" - Walter Murch

This is a follow-up to yesterday's ultra-fast release cycles and the new plane post. Being an advocate for NOT responding to every user feature request, I have tried to parse Skyler's words carefully.

She said, "myspace keeps doing what everybody really wants..."
She did NOT say, "what everybody asks for."

She said, "... as soon as you think of something, it's in there."
She did NOT say, "as soon as you ask for something, it's in there."

These distinctions are crucial!

To me, this implies that the developers are figuring out what people want as much (if not more) from watching and anticipating behavior as from taking specific feature requests.

To Skyler, it seems to feel that myspace is anticipating what the next natural thing might be based on the current state of how the software/community is being used. In other words, users may not know that they want something, but as soon as change A occurs, change B becomes obvious (at least to the developers) as the next natural thing.

The organic, natural, evolution of the software and the community seems very important and again--this isn't about responding instantly to user feature requests. Of course, this sounds like we (developers) have to be telepathic to figure out what they really want, and perhaps that's part of the point. We need to become mind-readers (virtually) rather than "yes men" to our users.

Jason Fried makes a big point of the fact that they (37signals) are users of their own software, and that they are in as good a position as anyone to recognize what is--and is not--important. He claims that people may believe a certain feature is really important, but it turns out that when they're using the system themselves, they realize that is just doesn't matter.

The Threadless guys said the same thing--that as developers, being RIGHT smack in the middle of the demographic of their users has really helped them. One of the guys (can't recall which one) did acknowledge that his ability to really understand what's going on will probably diminish as he gets older and farther away from the age/culture of his users (assuming the demographic stays the same).

So there is a huge challenge for developers/authors/teacher like myself who are creating for people who are younger than we are. And the same is true if we are developing for any user group we are not a part of and don't understand at the celluar level.

I'll leave you with a quote from Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch, which we try to apply when we're writing our books. I think it applies equally well to software:

"Your job is to anticipate... To give them what they want and/or what they need just before they have to "ask" for it--to be surprising yet self-evident at the same time. If you are too far behind, or too far ahead of them, you create problems, but if you are right with them, leading them ever so slightly, the flow of events feels natural and exciting at the same time."

Posted by Kathy on March 17, 2006 | Permalink


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» Responding to Users from Changing Way
My linkblog has filled up over the last week. Today I actually have time to sit down and blog about some of the things that have piled up. Looking back over the posts, the one I like best is from Kathy Sierra. She starts with the example of myspace, of... [Read More]

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Tracked on Mar 18, 2006 2:09:00 PM


I believe your position is enabling companies to perpetuate a level of arrogance that seems to pervade many Web 2.0 companies. As a perfect example, Jason Fried's supposition that "they (37 Signals) as users of their own software are in as good a position as anyone to recognize what is--and is not--important" is laughable for two reasons. First, Jason and 37 Signals use their product in a limited set of use cases and thus are only able to see what is important for their use case, not those of others. Secondly, they are only human, and no human has the ability to recognize all important things otherwise we would have realized that centralized control was clearly superior to distributed control, which we have not. Especially with the web we've come to realize that distribution of input and control has tremendous value. After all, can you imagine the (lack of) value Amazon would have provided had all its product reviews come from employees?

Posted by: Mike Schinkel | Mar 17, 2006 2:51:52 PM

Mike -- I do believe that the notion of thinking you know what users want because you ARE one has as many pitfalls as benefits. We see this problem with authors and teachers who teach/write in a learning style that matches how THEY learn. We try to use a variant of the golden rule -- "Do unto others as THEY would have you do unto them."
You make an excellent point--and I have to agree--that they use only a limited set of use cases. But I do think that experiencing your product as a user (eating-your-own-dog-food) can lead to very different decisions. Whether those are good or bad decisions depends on whether you let your target-audience-I'm-a-user status create blinders, or lead you to a deeper insight.
But use-cases aside, I still believe that the 37signals guys *are* able to evaluate much of what their software does as well as anyone, precisely because they are using the tools to get real things done. Calling that "laughable" is greatly underestimating it, in my opinion. Notice I didn't say that they know *better* than anyone else... but that they know "as well as", since any given user is also using only a limited set of use cases. But I reckon I've seen developers in this situation believe that they always DO know better than users. So you're making me realize that the "as well as" is an important distinction, and should never be confused with "always better than".

Overall, I have seen far more problems created by those (in any business) who do NOT eat their own dogfood, than by those who do. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize the developer-user gap--if only more developers/authors/teachers placed a higher premium on it.
In any case, you bring up really important and tricky points that we should spend more time thinking about.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 17, 2006 3:14:31 PM

I think the best ways to determine features go something like this:

1) observe users
2) be a user
3) ask users

What I'm curious about is what developers say when a user asks for a feature that they don't actually want. I don't imagine "you don't actually want that" would go over very well, but anything else seems a bit deceptive.

Posted by: Scott Reynen | Mar 17, 2006 4:03:08 PM

Reminds me of solving the paradox in Coldplay's Fix You Lyrics on X and Y
"When you get what you want but not what you need"

Posted by: Jim Rait | Mar 18, 2006 4:17:01 AM

Using your own software is huge. My friend and coauthor Floyd Jones used to talk about "eating our own dog food" when we were techwriters together. So much better than overpriced underdelivered market research.

Another good point with the distinction between what people want and what they ask for. Lots of software companies make that mistake. I believe Agile development is targeted at, among other things, working on getting what people want rather than ask for.

Posted by: Solveig Haugland | Mar 18, 2006 6:38:58 AM

Re: Threadless, I wouldn't suprise me if their audience grows old with them. Just like my parents still prefer Sintra over the Beatles, and would go to one of his concerts if he were still alive. Frank was young and hip once. He's still hip to people of his generation.

Posted by: Derek Scruggs | Mar 19, 2006 11:22:02 AM

What is threadless? Do you mean this...


Posted by: Alan Gutierrez | Mar 20, 2006 7:14:21 AM


You keep upping the ante, and by now I'm totally bowled over. Right now, I think you are the single best resource on human-centric technology that I was able to find on the web.

I've turned into a fan!

But this post kicks everything right into stratosphere. I can't even begin to tell you how good this post of yours is. It's totally preemptive!

Posted by: Alex Bunardzic | Mar 20, 2006 10:13:40 AM

I still remain Live Journal user.

Posted by: Helen, software developer | Apr 4, 2006 8:08:29 AM

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