Users know the problem. You know the solution

What’s considered by now to be mantra out there in ‘user-centric web development land’, is “listen to your users“. But in all that hubbub, you’ll also hear, “don’t listen to your users all that much.”

So what’s up with the paradox? Well, like all puzzles, it’s only a puzzle if you think it’s all or nothing. It seems pretty obvious once you think about it, but it bears reiterating:

Listen to your users when it comes to what’s wrong with your stuff. Users are more familiar with problems with your application than you are. They are pained by how much your application sucks, and how it doesn’t help them get on with their lives. So they’ll complain to you, in hopes that you’re listening and you’ll fix it.

But users often times have no idea what solutions are good. They’ll often offer up solutions to their problems with your application when they’re telling you what’s wrong with it. Often times, they won’t even tell you the problem, they’ll just offer solutions.

“You should put tagging in here.”

“Why not put a chat room so we users can talk to each other?”

However, they usually don’t have the overall vision, sufficient scope, and adequate background for improving the product. That’s your job. You have to get beyond what users are saying to figure out exactly what the problem is, and find a solution that fits the overall vision of the product, and perhaps solves other problems all at once also.

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