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Love Bursting Your Bubbles

User Experience (UX) and Customer Experience (CX) require humility.

hand inserting pin to pop bubble

User Experience (UX) and Customer Experience (CX) demand that we set aside our own preconceptions and surrender to the wisdom of the crowd. That means listening to transit riders and being open to bursting our own bubbles. Better yet, we can actually learn to ENJOY bursting our own bubbles... - think of it as learning and self-improvement. ( :

"wisdom of the crowd" (Oxford Dictionary): the collective knowledge of a group of people as expressed through their aggregated actions or opinions, regarded as an alternative to specialist or expert knowledge.

In my career, I have always felt that customer research has been good therapy for my hubris. If we truly listen to customers it forces us to question our own ideas and course correct. Strong ideas and preconceptions fall by the wayside and are replaced by customer feedback. Of course, research often supports our preconceptions and helps us confirm that we are on track. But in my opinion the more interesting learning happens when research bursts our bubbles.

Just to give a few examples from hundreds of dozens of times I burst my bubble over the years... when we were designing new BART train cars (the Fleet of the Future) we were excited about a custom bicycle rack we were designing that was similar to a transit bike rack used in Copenhagen and early mockups seemed promising when we tested them with bicyclists. But when we did final testing on the final prototype cars, a majority of bicyclists told us that they found them hard to use and preferred a simple horizontal bar mounted on the wall that they could bungee or strap their bike to, even if it meant stacking multiple bikes together. We double-checked the research to make sure it was accurate and switched to the new design despite our emotional investment in the Copenhagen style racks. It was hard to swallow, but on the bright side the new design weighed less, which slightly reduces the energy required to run the trains!

Original Fleet of the Future bike rack
Original Fleet of the Future bike rack
Revised Fleet of the Future bike rack
Revised Fleet of the Future bike rack

As another example, I can think of multiple times that customer research burst my bubble about the appeal of a brand position or brand tag line. Sometimes a tag line speaks to you and connects with your values and emotions but doesn't speak to the average transit rider. Many times I wanted to focus the transit brand on its environmental benefits, only to have the research tell me that only 15% or so of riders shared my passion for the environment. A majority care about the environment but not enough to change how they travel. You can imagine that this was difficult to hear, but it was important to listen to this feedback so I could be as effective as possible in marketing transit (which ultimately helps the environment). Anyway, as a result of the research, while we used environmental appeals when targeting smaller market niches that were receptive to eco appeals, we did not often use eco appeals for the mass market.

Of course, bursting bubbles is not for everyone. You will find that many of your colleagues will hold on to deeply held ideas even when confronted with conflicting information from customer research. As Paul Simon wrote in the lyrics for The Boxer in 1969: "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest..."

I have seen many instances over the years where people will even incorrectly quote research results that they have bent to comport with their own ideas. They cared enough to quote the research (albeit incorrectly) because they wanted to portray themselves as customer centric, but they were filtering the results to match their pre-existing gut feeling instead of opening themselves up to learn something new. And I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that there are rare luminaries like Steve Jobs that had an uncanny intuitive understanding of customer wants and needs even before research picked up on the latest trends. So if you feel you are in the same class as Steve Jobs, feel free to disregard this blog post....

But if you're not the next Steve Jobs, mindset matters when it comes to research consumption. Part of developing a CX culture is to improve how we consume research by developing a mindset of really listening without filters. This will maximize learning and CX success. That's not to say that customer research is always right. There are times when the research methodology is faulty. Maybe the sample is not random, inclusive, or representative. Maybe the questions are biased. It's fair to scrutinize the research but we need to be careful about dismissing it outright just because it bursts our bubble.


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