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Designing for other people versus designing for yourself

I had lunch with a very smart and capable friend of mine, Max, today. Max, myself, and a couple other friends co-founded a student group back in college, SEBA (formerly SBE) which we grew from scratch to over 500 students.

Anyway, we had a conversation about starting companies and the difficulty of designing for customers that are dissimilar to you. In particular, Max was against it :) He said he’d much rather stick to hobbies and activities where he had direct intuition to make decisions.

It’s a very valid point, and a huge hurdle for entrepreneurs that are targeting contrarian demographics. For example, a bunch of 30-year olds targeting the seniors market, or Americans trying to target overseas audiences. I imagine many folks are building social networks that are exploring these different markets, with some level of difficulty.

On a personal level, I’d say that the projects I’ve worked on to target audiences other than myself have also led to the most humbling outcomes. After thinking you "grok" a target customer audience, when you show them a prototype of your product and ask them what they think, be prepared! In my case, I got a bunch of very humbling feedback that indicated I had a long way to go. Better to get this information early than later, of course.

Accelerating user risk
In fact, you could argue that as you get more and more removed from the user, the risk you are taking that your intuition won’t match the target audience accelerates. Here’s the range of possible scenarios, from best to worst:

  • Being the customer
  • Having a business partner who’s a customer
  • Having a good friend/significant other who is the customer
  • Talking to the customer intermittently
  • Knowing of the customer and learning indirectly
  • Don’t talk to the customer

I think as you remove yourself from daily, in-person contact with the target audience, you take on a ton of risk. Mitigating this risk is a big problem, and you’d have to talk to companies like IDEO and such to figure out how to handle this. Most likely, there’s a lot of effort that would have to go into interacting with customers that you could generally skip by building tools for yourself.

A rule of thumb on user risk?

As a corollary to this, I’ve speculated with my friend Dave about how you’d go about funding pre-launch Web 2.0 startups. Ultimately, we agreed that the co-founders would need to represent the target audience for the company – that’s the only way you can reduce some of the risk from initial user behavior.

In fact, I wonder if the personality of an entrepreneur inherently makes it harder to be empathetic to different types of users. After all, part of doing a startup requires a bull-headed exercise in reality-distortion where you ignore a lot of social convention. The ability to do that may be inversely proportional to actually listening to people :)

Anyway, I’d certainly like to work on applications outside of my direct audience, but clearly I will have to think more about how to regularly listen to and incorporate feedback from a multitude of different people.

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