Don’t Ask Your Customer
by Karen Holtzblatt
Illustration by David RondeauOctober 16th, 2009
“People know everything—everything—about what they do. They just can’t tell you.”
This is the central insight of Contextual Design—and sometimes the hardest for people to understand. Every classic requirements collection technique depends on the idea that you can ask your customer—or your business user—what they need and get a response you can use to drive solution definition.
But people focus on doing their life not watching their life. Surveys, focus groups, and interviews can capture users’ most recent complaints—but not the details of everyday life. Why? Because life is habitual, unconscious, and unfolds autonomically. So if you ask the customer, people can’t tell you what they do or what they want because it’s not part of their consciousness to understand their own life activities.
So what to do? Don’t ask your customer what they need or want or like. Instead—go see for yourself. Go to the field. Talk with your users about what they are really doing while they are doing it. Then, you can see what people need—you can see what people are doing—and in the context of real life—people can tell you what is happening.