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How to talk so people will talk: not explaining anything

Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy
This was written as part of the rough draft for Deploy Empathy, a practical guide to interviewing customers.
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If you’ve built a software product, there’s a good chance you feel some emotional attachment to it. 
You poured time, heart, money, and considerable consternation into it. A lot of decisions had to be made. You had hopes that people would use it and excitement about what it could mean for you and your company. 
So when someone tells you what you made “doesn’t work” or “doesn’t make sense,” you might be quite rationally tempted to start explaining your thought process. 
(This will make the parts of your brain light up related to reward and motivation, and it will feel good.)

Yet... the other person has good reasons, too
I remember that “well, actually…” response was pretty strong in me when I first started building and shipping products.
I thought they were asking for me to clarify how it worked.
But what they were really asking for was for me to make it match their mental model of their own workflow.
I’ve been able to tamp it down for the most part, but I found myself accidentally slipping into it a few months ago.
A customer wasn’t able to download a completed spreadsheet from our dashboard, and I couldn’t figure out why.
I went through and tested it myself on my account.
I asked them permission to log in to their account, and was able to download the file.
We kept digging…
And it turned out they were using Internet Explorer.
Which, in perhaps Microsoft’s greatest act for humanity (or at least developers), they deprecated.
So you can probably imagine my internal groan and knee-jerk “well gee of course that’s why you’re having problems, half of the internet probably doesn’t work.”
But then I had to step back…
…and remind myself that they probably had a good reason to be using Internet Explorer. Maybe they’re on a work machine at a company that, for whatever reason, has not switched to Edge. Maybe they don’t know how to download a new browser, or don’t have the time or mental energy to devote to that because IE works for them.
Maybe they just don’t have a choice.
And rather than going into “Have you tried a different browser?” I simply sent them the file and sent them on their way. They’d already poured a lot of frustration and effort into this, and it wasn’t fair to add to that at that point.
I could have explained how we didn’t design for IE or how they should just download a modern browser. But what would that have accomplished? They probably know they’re using something that’s a bit behind the times, and don’t need another reminder.
Most of the time, though, this sort of explaining instinct comes up in less stark scenarios.
When you start explaining how you intended your product to work, or what you were thinking when you built it, you’ve turned the interview on yourself. 
Whenever this happens, you need to remind yourself that you’re only there to listen to the other person so you can build a mental model of how things work from their perspective.
Your perspective, unfortunately, is irrelevant. 
When someone says, “Why does it work like this?” you need to reply not with an explanation of but with a gentle, curious follow-up that allows you to learn more about their process. 
Some of these follow-ups include:
  • “Can you tell me how you expected it to work?” 
  • “I’m curious, can you walk me through what you expected to happen?”
  • “How would you change that if you could?”
It’ll take some time to unlearn explaining, especially if you’re the founder. 
Once you do, you’ll see how it’s a key to unlocking new insights about how your customers think and what they’re trying to do.
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Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy @mjwhansen

A practical guide to interviewing customers

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