From the perspective of an ordinary person (neither a designer nor a researcher) trying to solve a problem

Six months ago, a friend and I had an idea — to build a platform for travellers like us who loved going to remote and beautiful places in the world, off the worn-down touristed path. We were getting really frustrated with how difficult it usually was to plan these journeys so we wanted to build something to make it simpler for ourselves and other travellers like us. It was a simple idea: we go on the ground to find remote, inspirational journeys, get to know the guides who take travellers there (i.e. make sure they were legit for other travellers), and list them on the platform for other travellers to book and discover.

It was so simple that we didn’t understand why the platform didn’t already exist. Could we really re-imagine the world of travel so it becomes fun to book adventurous journeys rather than a chore? If it became easier to book these journeys, would they become less niche and would more people do them?

So, like any good disciples of Silicon Valley folklore, we started conducting user interviews to test our hypotheses and understand whether other travellers had the same pain points as us. We snuck into hostel after hostel that we weren’t staying in so that we could sit in common rooms and interview unsuspecting travellers who probably just wanted to get on with their reading. We drew up target personas beforehand and had screening questions intended to screen out those who weren’t our target personas. We had beautifully prepared user interview questions which my consumer research friends gave their stamp of approval to. We triangulated the questions so that any conclusions drawn from the responses would be robust. We recorded down everything that was said to minimise our interpretive biases.

At this point it should be pretty clear that I’m neither a designer nor have I ever done consumer research before this. I’m just feeling my way through, trying to solve a problem and build a company. I hope that this may help someone finding their way too, or at least spark protest from someone who knows better.

We came away from the user interviews a little confused to say the least. We had one person say that she travelled to understand more about local cultures, but later told us that she would not have conversations with locals on her trips. We had another person tell us that they loved adventure and getting out of their comfort zone but described holiday after holiday of relaxing on a beach resort. In almost all of the twenty one-on-one one-hour long interviews that we conducted, we found that what people said they wanted out of a trip turned out to be very different from what they described to be actually doing on their latest trips.

I asked a friend who worked in consumer research for large brands what she looked to achieve from user interviews. Maybe I could simply be content with the foregone conclusion that travellers were complex or maybe I had to go for a larger sample size or rework my questions.

She told me the story of a time when she was stumped. One of her clients asked her to do consumer research on why Asian consumers seemed to believe that rubbing soap bars on clothing stains would eradicate stains more effectively than washing the stained item with powdered detergent (i.e. the way they usually did their laundry). This made little sense to her client as the soap composition of the two methods were identical. My friend said that because this belief had been passed down from mother to daughter, generation to generation, it was hard to draw any meaningful ‘why’ conclusions from the interviews. Afterall, people are notoriously bad at explaining why they do what they do. She realised that if there were any meaningful conclusions to be had, they had to be drawn outside the context of the interviews, from her understanding of human behaviour.

Jony Ive famously said this about his designs at Apple:

“We don’t do focus groups — that is the job of the designer. It’s unfair to ask people who don’t have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design.” — Jony Ive

It’s become accepted wisdom (or at least oft-repeated wisdom) that it is unfair to ask users what they want, because it’s not their job to re-imagine the world. However, in imagining the ‘opportunities of tomorrow’ the designer needs to have a deep understanding of human behaviour and human desires. And perhaps, the user interviews are meant to do exactly that —verify or inform the designer’s understanding of current human desires and behaviour. From that knowledge, it is entirely up to the designer to design a tomorrow that consumers can buy into.

The user interviews which my friend conducted verified her understanding that consumers did believe there was a difference between using a soap bar and powdered detergent in eradicating stains. To figure out the ‘why’, she had to draw from her own understanding of human behaviour. Eventually, she came to the conclusion that perhaps the perceived difference between a soap bar and powered detergent was tactile. Perhaps people felt that they had greater control over the soap bar and how much soap to rub into a stain, and that control led them to believe that it was a more effective method to eradicate stains. Perhaps. Based on that insight, it would then be up to the designer to design a ‘so what’, a better solution to the problem.

My user interviews with travellers verified our understanding that travellers identified strongly with being adventurous. They did want local adventures and to step out of their comfort zones when they travelled. That basic desire was the strongest common theme from all the user interviews. What confused me was when I thought their travel style contradicted this basic desire. I couldn’t figure out why they did what they did from what they said in the interviews.

When I stepped outside the context of the interviews, and drew from my understanding of human — primarily, my own — behaviour, I could understand this a little bit better. On my first solo trip to Uganda, I made it a point to wander about local markets but I was too timid to strike up a conversation with anyone. I wanted to understand more about the local way of life but I felt sufficiently out of my comfort zone that I didn’t want to do more than what I was already doing. So perhaps the insight to be drawn from the interviews is the unspoken — people deeply desire adventure but what accompanies any sense of adventure is a sense of fear. Drawing from that insight, perhaps what I had to design for was a way for people to achieve the adventure they desired and minimise the underlying fear. Perhaps.

I don’t know if the conclusions I drew from my user interviews were right, and for that matter, I don’t know if there’s any way of knowing whether the conclusions that my friend drew from her interviews about soap were right. But what was helpful to me when faced with the complexity of answers from user interviews was simply knowing how someone else approached a stalemate. Hopefully by describing my thought process when faced with a stalemate, it will be helpful to someone else in the same position too.

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