Getting Closer To Your Users And Their Needs

by Jared M. Spool

There’s a game many of us played during our childhood. I’m betting you remember it.

In a group of many people, one person starts by whispering a phrase into a second player’s ear. The second player then whispers what they heard to the third person. This repeats until the message has transited through the entire group. Then the last person tells the first person what they believe the phrase was.

The last person’s phrase never matches what the first person said. In the United States, we call this the Game of Telephone. (In other countries, I’m told the game has other names, some of which seem culturally offensive, like Chinese Whispers or Russian Secrets. Whatever it’s called, the game is still the same.)

Unfortunately, the Game of Telephone isn’t just a children’s game. It’s what we adults do in our organizations, especially as we get bigger.

Communication Breakdown

When companies are small—startup small—we communicate frequently with our design’s users, often out of necessity. To survive with limited resources, we pay close attention to what the users want and what the customers will pay for. If we don’t, we run out of money and time.

As companies get larger, those close bonds start to break down between the users and the team designing the product. More intermediaries come into the picture. Eventually, there are many, many people playing the Game of Telephone. Our users far away at the start and our product design team all the way at the end.

The end user is frustrated, so they tell their manager.

The manager tells the person who purchased the original product.

The purchaser asks their salesperson from your company if there’s a way around the frustration. (There isn’t.)

The salesperson tells the sales manager.

The sales manager tells the VP of sales.

The VP of sales tells the chief product officer.

The CPO tells the head of product for your division.

The division head of product tells your product manager.

The product manager writes user stories and then creates Jira tickets.

You pull the Jira ticket and wonder how this ever became a thing.

We have a ticket that says “intelligent data export,” “forecasting,” or some other thing we don’t understand. We have no idea what the message started as. What was the problem the end user had that caused them frustration?

The way to win at the Game of Telephone is to eliminate the people in the middle. That’s true whether it’s children or companies playing the game.

Design Leaders Must Squash Message Distortion

Some companies manage to avoid this. Intuit, for example, has always had a strong cultural battle against message distortion. When Scott Cook founded the company, he instituted a policy where every employee had to meet and watch customers frequently. It’s part of their performance reviews. It’s baked into who they are.

At organization’s where it’s not baked in, design leaders need to make it a top priority to constantly push through the distortion field. They must find ways to get in front of their users. They must ensure key personnel—those who will make important design decisions, like product managers and developers—have regular, direct exposure to what frustrates and delights their users.

As an organization grows bigger, natural forces will continually try to insert people into the middle. Design leaders fight those forces by constantly highlighting the benefits their teams has made through direct exposure. Showing what they’ve learned from user research and how that research improved their products by making it their top priority.

The Game of Telephone doesn’t have to be the norm in the organization. It takes continual work to prevent the middle people from distorting the message. Design leaders who successfully keep the Game of Telephone at bay enable their organizations to deliver better designed products and services.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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