Ask questions first

I’ve been in some situations where an outside expert comes into a program I’ve been working on for years and suggests a solution they had some success with in another context. They did this before seeking to understand the situation and even whether we had the problem the solution was intended to solve. This is a hero mindset that devalues or completely disregards the experience of people who have been on the ground. It’s insulting. Also, it’s ineffective. The solution I’m referencing here would have made no sense given the size of our userbase, the user experience challenges we were facing, and the knowledge we have about our users. Any good set of research methods (like this one from Nielsen Norman Group) will include guidance on when or when not to use each method. Forgetting about that is a great way to have a project fall on its face. Sure, you could try an experiment, fail fast, and learn from it. But you could save everyone some time by first absorbing the baseline of knowledge the team already has.

I’ve also been the person to make this mistake. Someone asked me recently to describe a time that I failed. Once I was on a team with another UX designer who was writing his dissertation on a statistical (cluster analysis) method of persona development while he built out personas for our company using this method. It worked well in this setting where we had high customer engagement and a large userbase. Later I hired him as a consultant to apply the same method at another company with a smaller userbase made up of market researchers who weren’t particularly inclined to be on the participant side of research. We struggled to get responses, and our team rightfully pointed out that the personas we came away with didn’t have much credibility because we didn’t have enough data to support them. So the lesson was to think carefully about what factors need to be in place for the method to work.

I heard about an interview process for an executive director of a small non-profit organization, and one candidate had a panel interview where the team asked them what their vision was for the organization. The candidate’s response was something like, “I’d ask a lot of questions before I make a decision like that.” People were not impressed. They expected someone to come in with a concrete vision or even a set plan. But when someone acknowledges that they need to learn more first, it impresses me a lot more than someone who thinks they already know what needs to be done.

One middle ground is, “I have some ideas (and here’s what they are), but I also need to learn more to have an idea of what makes sense.”