I love you but you make me so angry!

Instead of 1,000 words, let me just give you a picture to introduce this article:

eBay at a Glance

Thanks, eBay.

Caution: probably outdated screenshot. This one’s from the library, folks, about a year old. But at one point, it was there, and really… that’s enough for me.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of interfaces…

I can hear you taking a breath now to question: Why pick on eBay? By any measure, they’re ridiculously successful.

That’s true. Well, actually, wait—by what measure? Do they make lots of money? Heck yeah. But does that mean they’ve reached their top profit potential? Definitely not. Should we measure their success compared to other businesses… or their current success compared to their full potential?

The thing with eBay is that the experience is lopsided: buying things is a vastly simpler undertaking than selling things. I know that the “my friends and I” or “people I know” argument only holds so much weight, for sure, but… I know lots of people who use eBay to buy things often, but have stopped using it to sell anything because it’s just not worth the hassle. These people accept less money for their stuff by selling locally, or give up entirely and let hundreds of dollars’ worth of “junk” (to them) just sit around and gather dust because it’s not worth the time, effort, or pain to sell it effectively (nor worth it to them to sell it for bargain basement prices locally).

A more streamlined experience could probably encourage even more people to sell more things—because, after all, they have by far and away the largest buying audience of any auction site. This means more revenue, more cool stuff (or at least more cool stuff), and even greater dominance for eBay.

Ah, I hear you saying. But people who use eBay to make a living selling things really love it.

True, that’s what they say. But the discipline of cognitive psychology points out some interesting things we shouldn’t ignore.

Misjudging the soup

Over and over again, science seems to show that people aren’t largely rational, especially when it comes to gushy, subjective, ephemeral things like feelings. We can’t explain the true source of our feelings or behaviors, or even identify all the time what we are feeling, when brain activity or other physiological responses paint a clearer picture. We really don’t understand what causes us to feel things, especially happiness. And our memories about these “feeling” things are terrible.

For example, studies have demonstrated repeatedly that people will misrepresent their feelings in aggregate and when remembering the past (e.g. “playing with my kids is the most rewarding part of my day”) but not in the moment (e.g. Mommy or Daddy are playing with the kids when a beeper goes off and they are asked to write down their feelings right then—and they’re no happier than when they’re doing housework, historically).[1] Is it on some level willful (and, no doubt, lifesaving) ignorance and forgetfulness? Or is it simple forgetfulness?

Either way, we’re an unreliable bunch!

There are all sorts of reasons for this perceptual whackiness, but we don’t need to understand the exact mechanics to understand the implication: people who say “oh yeah, I love x” may not be telling the whole truth. It’s quite possible that they are temporarily forgetting or glossing over all the daily frustrations of dealing with x. (When it comes to family members, friends and coworkers, this is probably an important blessing!)

Look: a lesson! Run!

Just because your users seem to love you—for some reason—doesn’t mean that you can’t substantially improve their experience with your product. It doesn’t mean they won’t notice how much less stressful things are after your improvements. (Although they might not notice it consciously or be able to articulate much about the changes.)

It does mean that you can’t always trust people to tell you when they’re having bad experiences—for more reasons than ones we normally think about.

It’s not just the people who hate you in silence—who don’t feel invested enough to bother writing an email—who might be suffering. There are also those who suffer and you’ll never know it because they’re so enthusiastic about the ancillary benefits of the product that the product itself becomes something they don’t typically think about, and those who suffer and forget it, and those who suffer but don’t realize they’re suffering because they literally can’t imagine things being any better and therefore their suffering doesn’t register as anything out of the ordinary.

Ah, that explains GoDaddy.

The corollary of this, of course, is that if your side effects—ancillary or network benefits—are good enough, you can get by with a, shall we say, less-than-spectacular user experience. We already know this, of course. I’ve watched people will point certain (unnamed) companies out and wonder aloud how such success can be gained with such crummy goods. (And I’ve done it myself, of course.) A fair number of these successes—where consumers have the choice—are easily explained once you understand how tricky humans are about choices and emotional insight.

But just because some people can capitalize on a horse with 3 legs doesn’t mean that you should go buying a horse with 3 legs if you come across one. It seems better to invest your money in a horse with a full complement of appendages, if you can. You simply have better odds.

There is, in fact, a time for arrogance. But it’s not now.

There’s also a tremendous danger in being the owner of a product that succeeds despite itself. If you see things for what they are and play your cards right, you can take advantage of your luck and capitalize on it. On the other hand, if you are too arrogant to admit the true nature of the success you’ve found, you can squander it easily—either by butchering the product further, or missing the opportunity to transmute your luck into something more stable and inherent.

It’s always important to know what value people really find in the things you design and build. Creating things typically requires arrogance, but once your baby’s out there, you have to put on your Humility Hat and accept the nature of what comes to you. You have to let people find the value in it that they want to find, and follow their lead.

[1] This beeper method is called ‘experience sampling’ and you can read a bit about it here, here, here and here. I read about this particular example in a book recently and I’m trying to remember which one (I may, in fact, read too much). It may have been This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology but I don’t think so. I’ll let you know if I figure it out. Meanwhile, this article touches on the happiness/childcare thing but isn’t as specific as the example I read. In any case, I highly recommend Stumbling on Happiness as an introduction to… well… how charmingly in the dark we all are.

Talk to me

What do you think?

Do you have something you love for an indirect reason—e.g., “I love what you do for me”? Something you love that gives you lots of grief in the moment? Or something you hate that gives you pleasure in the moment? Or something that you think fondly of until you get back to actually touching it, using it, experiencing it?

Or does this all sound like touchy-feely hogwash?

No Comments

  1. Martin Smith says:

    Hi Amy,

    I’d agree about eBay. In fact, your post made me immediately think of two examples: 1) the brick & mortar stores that will list/sell your stuff on eBay and 2) all of the software people create to make posting (and bidding, for that matter) easier on eBay.

    So it’s true — you don’t always need a good UXP, but I’d conjecture that if you do a poor job, someone else will hack on a better UXP whether you like it or not :)

  2. sergiu says:

    When we love something we should focus on the love part, and not think about grief or if this love is really true. People are too often preoccupied with being unhappy, instead of focusing on all the million reasons of being happy. So when I love something I try to just love, and when I do something I try to do it with all my heart. The interesting point that you’re mentioning is that we often don’t feel that happiness when it should, but later. Well I guess this is because we’re too much preoccupied with little things…

  3. Gregory says:

    Hi Amy,

    Just a few lines to say I really appreciate your posts trying to share with all of us your experiences ,feelings and conclusions.

    I really enjoyed reading this article which with some respect the story of my life. Think different but with your feet on the ground. Would be so nice to find someone that work that way in my company to talk about user experience.

  4. Paul Anthony says:

    Amy – I think there’s always a danger with getting too comfortable with a product, and that simply thinking "it does what it says on the tin" should not be confused with "what else could it do better?". I do think however that if Ebay changed their interface – their faithful following would be up in arms.

    "How dare you change it for the better – I was used to it." – I can hear the crys now.

  5. Amy says:

    @Martin, Good point! You’re right, it seems that Power Sellers try to avoid eBay’s software as much as possible but I forgot. :) Even I used to use separate utilities for listing and such. Man was that whole process a pain!

    And people sure have made money charging for those products, too.

    @sergiu, I agree with you in principle… good approach to life. Nevertheless, anything we can do to reduce suffering/friction for others is generally worth doing, according to my philosophy :) Even if it’s as "mundane" as creating better software!

    @Gregory, thank you. If you can’t find anybody to talk to at your company, maybe you should hunt for a better job. The psychic pain is probably not worth it!

    @Paul, I love your metaphor – what it does on the tin. I’m going to steal it ;)

    And you have a good point about people complaining. I thought about addressing that in this article, but I didn’t because I thought it’d stray too far off topic (and gosh, it was long enough already!). But there’s a school of thought that says, if some people aren’t complaining about changes you’re making, you’re not doing your job.

    There’s also a question of whether those people are just having a knee-jerk reaction which will go away over time. Most people resist change just because it’s change, not because they have the ability to judge whether a new process/behavior is actually better. And worse yet, in my experience, these folks don’t pop up again later and say "I was wrong" anything like as loudly as they say "CHANGE IS BAD!" so they’re hard to count.

    Daniel Burka gave a great presentation on this exact problem at FOWD this past September. The speakers page has links to his slides and an MP3 of the talk:

    Daniel Burka: Interpreting Feedback

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