Shooting Each Other In The Trenches

When you are fighting big enemies, with big guns, you can’t expect not to have friendly fire. And sometimes all of your privates and officers might end up talking more about how big their guns are, and enjoying shooting them blindly in the dark more than actually locating and capturing key positions.

Why does this happen? Doesn’t everyone know that the point is to win the war against an enemy eager to fortify their defenses, and destroy your offenses? Of course they do. When the details of a war are going wrong, I cannot bring myself to blame the foot soldiers, the people on the ground. They know what their goals are, and I think any analysis will show they are truly doing their best to get there.

So can we blame the planners? The temptation is strong, but to do so would violate the principle of the continuum, which states, roughly, that if at each step on the way, things don’t get worse, you can’t pretend that things at one end are much worse than at the other. The funny thing of course is that when you compare the two ends of the War Machine continuum, the principle seems not to apply but even if it doesn’t, it does give us reason to stop and reconsider if indeed the problem with a slowly-fought war necessarily is in the utter incompetence of its top people.

I doubt you’ve figured out that all of the words in the first two paragraphs of this post are in fact completely metaphorical — I am not talking of a real military war, or of any actual leaders, generals and statespeople. This isn’t yet another anti-war post; I am really not interested in pronouncing opinions on something so universal, current and “real-world.” That would be quite against the theme of my blog writing.

No, this post is about a dinner I had with members of my “team” at Yahoo. I knew, even as I sat at an all-expenses paid table at a mid-range restaurant in the Valley, that a blog post was imminent, but it took me a while to figure out exactly what was bothering me about the event and the conversation that flowed around me. I considered each of the attendees to pick my prime victim — who would be the best lampooned, or most inspiring of sardonic but insightful commentary? Funnily, after enough wine and moyenne cuisine, none of the usual digs seemed fair, or interesting enough.

But after a few days of thinking, it occurred to me that what was really conspicuous by its striking absence was the User. In all of our discussions, about all the things that the groups at Yahoo that were represented at the dinner, and those were some well-known groups at that, would be building, no one ever asked, “What do our customers want?” I don’t blame any of the folks at the table, because I don’t think that is on the minds of most Internet companies right now, except the very few that are really known for their good user experience. (No, I am not going to name any names. That’s a discussion I don’t want to have. Let’s just agree that the number is small compared to how many Internet companies there are out there.)

No, honestly, who has time to think about the User any more? Most Valley companies are run by a significant numbers of engineers, and engineers would much rather make the User a statistic to be matched against a scale, instead of trying to come up with a comprehensive and usable model of what it means to be a User, a model that goes beyond numbers, to articulating the User’s needs via words. Of course, this isn’t a model in the strict sense that engineers and mathematicians like to think of it, but it is a model all the same because it describes the User and their problems in a way that allows the Engineer to solve the User’s problems.

I don’t think there’s a left-right brain divide here that makes this task impossible. I would suggest for example that Engineers think about the object hierarchy implicit in their products from a user’s point of view, and think about their front-end and product design from the perspective of this hierarchy. Even as small a step as considering users as objects with properties can go a long way in cleaner design — a user can be logged-in or not, can have a history with the site or not, and so on. Each of these properties could impact the view of the products in a different way. Each property can be assigned a weight and ranked — the most important property, or combination of properties, can be picked to decide the experience the user has of the product.

This view of the User isn’t completely unquantifiable. There’s no marketing speak, and new-age talk here of user happiness, and user satisfaction, and user love and user actualization. For a large number of interactions, people engage in quasi-economic transactions, where aspects of their identity affect their expectations of the world around in them, in fairly determinstic ways. An engineer’s mind can go a long way in modeling these aspects and delivering a pleasing experience, without the help of a lot of visual design and usability studies.


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