Insight and experience, concentrated

Being My Father’s Son (why you are no longer the typical user)

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I was at a design conference in Seattle talking with a colleague when it arrived with a buzz.  Instead of the sweet note of longing I hoped for, I received this vaguely foreboding statement – and I deserved it.

A little background… My father had a way with cars.  He had the intuition and touch, and at times it seemed he related to them better than to any of us children.  I was in awe of his skill and how he seemed able to see and understand things that eluded the rest of us.

Well, one of our cars would have a carburetor flooding problem in very specific circumstances.  He knew that, and knew how to correct it when necessary.  Problem was, it was the car my mother drove most, and she wasn’t blessed with his “car whisperer” gifts…  One frigid winter night I remember him talking her through the process over the phone: remove the air cleaner, stick a hair comb into the choke plate to lean out the mix, and so on.  It wasn’t really a problem in his eyes because he understood the system intimately, and how to address problems it occasionally had.  It sure was a catastrophe that victimized my mother on nights like that though.

Keeping that in mind, let’s pull this all forward…  I had recently added a soundbar to our television and left the wiring in a “functional” state, planning to redo it when I wall-mounted the television in a week.  The universal remote wasn’t playing well with the soundbar, the HDMI ports and routing were a mess, but I knew exactly what was going on and could navigate it well. That was me – my wife didn’t understand it, couldn’t visualize it, and had no patience for it (or me) when “Chopped” was about to start.  Didn’t help that this was the third setup she had to deal with in as many weeks as I experimented.

My wife was a typical user, and it is often easy for product development professionals to lose touch with their point of view.  You may think you are just like them – heck, you use the product at home too!  But the more you know as a professional in the field (designer, engineer, marketing specialist, etc…), the further you get from being a kindred soul of the mass market consumer.  The mechanisms of accomplishing a task are apparent to you, and you’ve gotten to the point of developing sophisticated jargon to describe the elements and actions you deal with to make the magic happen.  Most of the time they don’t care – nor should they.  A convoluted description or excuse doesn’t solve their need, regardless of how proud we may be that we figured it all out.

I already know this well, but an occasional humbling reminder is a healthy thing.  I had grown to be my father’s son, but my wife was clearly not my mother’s daughter (as is the custom, I suppose).