Creative Studio


A blog about design, user experience, startups and everything in between.

Living The Life of an User


There’s a lot of talk about user personas, having diversity in your user’s personas, blah blah. I do not deny them and don’t say that they don’t work. But the thing is that if you don’t live the life of your users, most likely all your personas (no matter how accurate they are) will fail.

When you sit in an office and gather data from Facebook profiles for building user personas, that’s not how you create great products. Browsing the Internet and doing only 2–3 interviews is not how you gain responsibility for what you put out in the world. Doing research in a “lab”? Haven’t seen more interestingly useless approach for product design.

My concern is that we hide so much behind stupidly rational and smart theories, buzzwords, numbers, that we forget to go out and live a day in the life of our users. And my other concern is that we take the approach of personas, say how wrong it is, and then add another level of bullshit on how to improve it, rather than go out and live the life of your users. 

People who see complicated solutions do not have an incentive to put in place obvious ones. As we saw, a bureaucratized system will increase in complication from the interventionism of people who sell complicated solutions because that’s what their position and training invite them to do. Things designed by people without skin in the game tend to grow in complication (before their final collapse). There is no benefit for someone in such a position to propose something simple: when you are rewarded for perception, not results, you need to show sophistication. Anyone who has submitted a “scholarly” paper to a journal knows that you usually raise the odds of acceptance by making it more complicated than necessary. Further, there are side effects for problems that grow nonlinearly with such branching-out complications. Worse: Non-skin-in-the-game people don’t get simplicity — Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game

So rather than complicating your users’ personas and add another bull***t layer of complexity, go out. Eat your own dog food and ask people how they feel about your product. See how they use it in real life, not a lab. Why? Because formal usability is too stiff. And lab settings don’t reflect the reality. When someone is watching you, people are especially careful not to do any mistakes. But mistakes and opportunities is exactly what you are looking for.

While you search for solutions online, your answers may be offline.

Boeing and Napoleon

Mik Kersten in his book Project to Product tells a story of how Boeing applied an interesting approach to how developers should write the code for their planes.

“The 777 was Boeing’s first “fly-by-wire” plane. In other words, the software had to work, as it was purely software that was controlling the flaps and rudder and preventing the plane from falling out of the sky. Due to the clarity of the software, Boeing decided to put all the heads of software engineering on the test flight. During the test flight, the plane started shaking, and the software engineers were able to implement a midflight fix via turbulence control software. I have yet to find a better example of an organisation putting software leaders skin in the game of high-stakes product development.”

The story reminds me of a case, of how Napoleon solved the problem with gunpowder factories explosions. He passed a law requiring the owner and his family live on site. This way minimising the number of explosions and increasing the level of responsibility. Can’t confirm the first story, but even if it could be fictional, they are a perfect example of how we can improve the design process. And build great products only by increasing the level of responsibility. Eat your own dog food.


Ever felt nervous when speaking on stage?

Nassim Taleb has another interesting idea he noticed and writes about it in his book. “Those who give lectures to large audiences — and other speakers — feel uncomfortable on stage. The reason, it took me a decade to figure out, is that the stage light beaming in our eyes hinders our concentration. (This is how police interrogations used to be run: beam light on the suspect, and wait for him to start talking.) But in the middle of the lecture, speakers can’t identify what is wrong, so they attribute their loss of concentrations for being on a stage. So why is this happening?”

It’s because light engineers don’t lecture to large audiences, but those who lecture don’t know anything about light engineering.

And I was having a similar conversation on the podcast with Dan Toma, the author of Corporate Startup Innovation. He said that one of the most successful entrepreneurs are those that worked for at least 10 to 20 years in a corporation. Why? Because they worked for almost two decades in one industry and know everything about it. How people think, work, what motivates them, how they will act in certain situations. And all of this experience and information doesn’t come from doing one user persona. It comes from “living in the wild” and feeling and experiencing it yourself.

Knowing the environment of your users, I will repeat myself here, and eating your own dog food, is a critical aspect of designing great outcomes and outputs. Because it means more responsibility for what you put out in the world. Or as the saying goes:

Don’t take any advice from someone who doesn’t have anything to lose if it doesn’t work

How Nokia believed in more significant data

Tricia Wang, tech ethnographer, in one of her Ted Talks, demystified big data and identified its pitfalls, suggesting that we should focus instead on “thick data” — valuable, unquantifiable insights from actual people — to make the right business decisions and thrive in the unknown.

It was about 2007–08 when iPhone just came out, and Android was gaining traction. Tricia lived among the Chinese people for many years and conducted ethnographic work. And by living with migrants to working as a street vendor and living in internet cafés, she gathered lots of indicators that led her to conclude that even low-income consumers were ready to pay only to have an expensive smartphone.

But, at that time, a lot of smart and realistic people thought that smartphones were a fad, and they will disappear.

Who will want to carry a big clunky phone who’s battery dies in a couple of hours and also breaks all the time you drop them?”

After presenting all her data to Nokia, she recommended they switch to making smartphones. Meanwhile, people at Nokia haven’t been impressed because it wasn’t big data. They already had data that did not show any sign of that. Tricia’s data was based on a sample size of 100 people. Meanwhile, Nokia’s data was based on a million people sample size.

For you to see the picture, their data was based on the surveys they have been sending out and asking people if they would love to have or buy a smartphone. And of course people didn’t know what a smartphone is and most replied with a no. The rest is history. Nokia was acquired in 2013 by Microsoft.

Some companies tend to believe that data from larger samples is more valuable than the ones from a small sample .
—  Tricia Wang

You must be the number one user

I was having a conversation on the podcast with Ryan Singer, Head of Strategy at Basecamp and I asked him how they decide what to add to their product. What feature is good/bad or what idea to proceed with. And he said that they choose it themselves because they design the product for themselves. 

Of course, not always do the apply the same approach, but it’s the idea that matters. You must take the responsibility of becoming a power user, who lives with that product on a daily basis. So you can say everything about it, what’s working and what’s not. Where it should be improved and how. And no, it doesn’t happen only by sitting in front of a screen all day long.

Eugen Esanu