"Argh! It's obvious! Just use some basic common sense!"
Identify that feeling? I used to get frustrated with people who didn't display basic common sense.
Then I started user testing and it all changed.
Now I get frustrated with the people who say, "Just use some basic common sense!"
I get frustrated because I've realised what that phrase really means. More on that later...
First, have you done any user testing? It's a deceptively simple process. You put something you've made in front of a real person who's never seen it before and watch how they respond to and interact with it.
Sound simple? Sound easy? It is – mostly. And it's arguably the most powerful tool in the creative's arsenal.
It's not all easy though. Probably the trickiest part to master is the art of seeing through your users' eyes. It's not that hard in essence: it's only empathy. But it does get hard when a user is demonstrating that what you've made sucks.
I remember running a user test for the first time, wide-eyed and fidgeting as my test participant completely misunderstood my design.
As much as my head empathised, my gut wanted to scream, "Argh! It's obvious! Just use some basic common sense!"
I had to remind myself that this frustration was good. That it was my design that was broken – not my user. And that my user was showing me exactly how to make my design better.
Now I just had to dig for the insights. How exactly did the user experience it? What was confusing? Boring? Why were their expectations different from what I'd anticipated?
After making some improvements, another test. My design still sucked, just not quite as badly.
And user testing had an effect on me beyond just making my designs better.
User testing turned my users into real people that I cared about, instead of faceless zombie throngs annoying my team with pesky requests and complaints.
I started stepping into different people's shoes. I experienced different world-views, mental models and outlooks. I understood that everyone interprets and responds to things differently.
I didn't always like their outlooks. I didn't always agree. But I did realise that what I'd always seen as common sense wasn't actually common after all.
So what is common sense?
Common sense does exist. It's just not what most people mean when they utter those words.
True common sense is etched into our wet circuitry. It's those evolution-driven heuristics and instincts that were essential for survival in the Stone Age. Unfortunately, it served us a lot better on the savannah than it does in the office.
Here's some common sense:
- Eat food
- Care for infants
- Don't get eaten by bears.
So far so good. But here's some more common sense:
- Don't stand out from the crowd or you'll be rejected and die
- Fear others who aren't from your tribe
- Eat more food than you need right now, because Winter is coming.
Common sense heuristics made sense in the past, but hurt us now. They lie behind our anxiety about shipping our work. They lead us to fear failure. They make us fat, complacent, easy to distract.
Common sense sometimes causes us to do senseless things.
Humans are messy. When we interact with even slightly complex systems, common sense just doesn't cut it.
Instead, what matters is our individual knowledge and experience. Those give us mental models and cognitive heuristics that go way beyond common sense.
With mindfulness, attention and deliberate practise, we can develop new instincts and patterns that serve us better.
There's a side effect of increased knowledge. It's called the curse of knowledge: once you know something, you can't really remember what it was like not knowing it.
And that's why when people say, "use your common sense!" what they really mean is, "this appears obvious to me and I can't tolerate that you perceive it differently."
And despite all my testing-driven empathy — people who are so short-sighted about human variability and fallibility still frustrate me.
So, the next time you feel frustrated by someone's apparent lack of common sense, please do try and see things through their eyes for a few moments.
And finally, please leave a comment and share any examples you have – or just let me know if you think I'm talking nonsense.