Do We Really Change Users?

darwin.jpgI had an interesting conversation with a colleage at work the other day about the impacts of user research and putting innovative products, software and services in the hands and lives of users. Essentially the discussion revolved around the notion of whether through our work we reveal unmet behaviors, use models and attitudes, or whether we actually change users in some way. His take on it was that we reveal, my take on it is that we create change.

To my knowledge, no research has been done into this question, and it’s one that at an almost subconscious level has been bugging me for quite a while. When this conversation occurred it brought to light (for me) some issues that had been bubbling beneath the service about the practice and value of user research. I’d be interested to hear other people’s responses.

The Reveal argument goes basically that when we put a novel product in front of someone it may satisfy a need (behavioral, attitudinal, perceptual, emotional etc.) that had heretofore been unaddressed and perhaps even unrecognized (latent need). By exposing and tapping into that unmet need, or by landing on it by happenstance, we enable those needs to be met. By finding and addressing these unmet needs we create products that we be valued and therefore profitable.

The Change argument is that new innovative products do indeed change the way people see the world and how they behave, and introduce needs and ideas that had not been previously present at any level in that person’s mind. The Change model is more about creating opportunities for users, than it is about addressing needs that are always/already there (to use Jacques Derrida’s phrase). The change comes from the user recognizing that the product enables them to do things they have never been able to do before, and then adapting to that change.

The conundrum of the Reveal argument for me is that it implies an almost infinite quantity and variety of needs for any given person, that they are almost infinitely malleable. All we have to do is present an individual with something meeting one of those huge number of needs, a switch will go off, and they will start wanting whatever it is we have created.

On the one hand this is quite a freeing way of seeing people, as it assumes a huge capacity of change and adaption, which is a very useful thing. On the other hand, it treats people as “empty vessels” into which anything can be poured. It infantalizes people - they become child-like blank slates with lots of needs but lacking the ability to articulately express them.

This is a common sub-text of critiques of consumerism: people are vulnerable and need to be protected from the excesses of duplicity of capitalism. I’m no unquestioning fan of capitalism by any stretch, but I’m also not one to think that adults can’t critically see the world around them and not believe everything that advertising and the media throws at them. I put myself more in the camp of Michel de Certeu, for those familiar with him.

Beyond that, it makes people equivalences of one another (each containing largely the same huge set of needs) — a homogonization that ignores culture and upbringing, that I find distasteful.

And so to the Change argument — do we actually change people? I believe we do. I believe that new products can change how we interact with others, how we conduct our leisure and work, how we deal with information and entertainment, and thus change the way we behave and see the world. People and books cause changes like this (sometimes in spite of selfish “needs”), so why not products too? The change must still be relevant, but it need not be constrained by existing (even latent) needs.

There’s that saying, possibly apocryphal, that if Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said “A faster horse.” Cars are addressing the same fundamental need of travelling from A to B that horses do, yet they have also created massive change in other ways that “faster horses” never would. Cars have created needs, behaviors and attitudes that would not have existed if cars had not been invented. Needs are created, not just revealed, and needs become extinct.

This is actually very reminiscent of the creationism vs. evolution question. Strict creationism holds that all species alive today are all that have ever existed and will ever exist, because God is infallible and would not create imperfect species that could have died out. Evolution says that species adapt to change around them, in turn causing more change, and that the environment shapes the species at least as much as the species shapes the environment (well, with the exception of humanity). We know from the fossil record that vast numbers of species have in fact gone extinct because they could not adapt to the new needs that were being “revealed”.

Really this isn’t an either/or proposition. Products do indeed reveal needs, and they do also create genuine change. But let’s not get trapped in a reductionist “creationist” mode that over simplifies people’s complexities and capacity for adaptation.