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It doesn’t matter how it got this way. Just fix it.

By Michael Heraghty on May 7th, 2015

jeff bezos

Initial client meeting

Client: “We’d like you to conduct user testing of our website.”

Me: “Great.”

Client: (Laughs.) “And don’t worry. We’ve got thick skins. We want honest, open feedback.”

Later … Worskshop to discuss the findings

Me: The users I tested loved the “Try it Now FREE” button on the homepage. But it took them to a mandatory registration form. All of the test users disliked this, especially having to create a password.

Client: Hmmm … we originally wanted a web-only version that didn’t require registering. We built a beta, but it had too many bugs. In the end, Jenny from marketing insisted we capture email addresses.

Me: I understand.

Client: I mean, we’ve already had a ton of meetings over this … and we’ve wasted development time. Actually, I’m kinda surprised it came up, because none of our real customers have ever complained. Where did you get your testers?

***

Seek improvement, not forgiveness

The scenario above is fictitious but whenever I present findings to a client, I brace myself for a defensive response.

The most common reaction to constructive criticism? Clients will tell me a story about how it got this way. This need to explain may be innate. I catch myself doing it, automatically, when I receive criticism.

Of course, it’s useful to understand the wider context to any problem. But context does not make the problem go away. Let’s face it, a lot of our “explaining” is just making excuses.

Users do not care what the person from marketing thinks. Or how many iterations you did. Or how much money you invested.

The wise client

Wise clients respond to genuine criticism by asking “how can we make this better?

The rest of us

But us mere mortals cannot avoid the instinctive “here’s how it got this way” response. We just need to get it out of our system. The trick is to move on as quickly as possible to “how can we make this better?” 

When the client is finished explaining, I try to move them on to solutions. Often, the client already has a strong sense of the solution — I make them act on what they know, but are ignoring.

Focus on the user / customer

Companies inevitably create internal narratives. These in-house stories create an identity and culture, and help companies succeed.

But listening only to internal narratives can drag companies back. It can make them too inwardly focussed. Inward-looking companies, who are unable to see their products as their customers see them, take criticism poorly.

One solution is to make a focus on customer part of your narrative, part of your identity. For example, Amazon is obsessed with customers. Its mission is to be “Earth’s most customer-centric company.” One of the core principles at Amazon (and one of the reasons it is so successful) is: start with the customer and work backwards.

It doesn’t matter how it got this way. Just fix it.

And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!

— Robert Burns, To a Louse, 1786

Image by: Charis Tsevis

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