Are startup founders able to really listen to user research?

Just read Laura Klein’s post Startups Shouldn’t Hire User Researchers. She makes a lot of sense, but I found myself a little bit troubled by her conclusion.

I agree completely with Klein’s premise:

User research is critical to startups. How else are they supposed to understand their potential customers and find product market fit? … learning about your customer is the single most important part of your startup. If you’re outsourcing that to a person who isn’t directly responsible for making critical product decisions, then you are making a horrible mistake.

I also agree, to a point, that everyone in the startup (and company!) must be user-centered. This is nothing new: it’s part of the old business wisdom of “know your customer” and “the customer is always right”. Methods of understanding your users and what they really need and want have to be baked into your DNA: not only do you have to be able to identify unclear language in the interface, you have to understand people’s real problems and provide a solution that they’re willing to pay [money, information, attention] for.

Klein goes on to say:

I see startups do this over and over. They hire a consultant, or even a regular employee, to come in and get to know their users for them. That person goes out and runs a lot of tests and then prepares a report and hands it over to the people in charge of making product decisions. Half the time the product owners ignore the research or fail to understand the real implications of it.

She’s completely right: this is a big problem. It’s “abstracted research”. It doesn’t trigger our human empathy to read a research report the way our brains get triggered when we actually watch human beings struggle through a product, or hear the utter “meh” in their voices when they encounter a new product concept. At a previous company I worked at, we’d send report after report to the CEO that users just didn’t really care about a particular product that he was gung-ho about, and that it needed to be reworked into a smaller feature of a larger product. It wasn’t until he was visiting another CEO, who got onto his company’s loudspeaker, called up a dozen random employees, and conducted an impromptu focus group for our CEO, that the message finally sunk in: users didn’t get it and when they did, they didn’t really care all that much.

Klein suggests that business owners should be doing all of this work themselves, rather than having a designated staffer:

The reason I talk so much about user research is that I want you, the entrepreneurs, to learn enough about it so that you can DO IT YOURSELVES… But having somebody else do the research for you is not an option. At least, it’s not one that you should use if you’re still trying to find product market fit or learn anything actionable about your customers.

It’s not that I disagree with Klein per se. It’s that I think there are personality traits common to many CEOs, startup founders, and product managers that make them more or less incapable of listening deeply to their users. It’s a Myers-Briggs thing: strong leaders have to believe in their vision of the world and rally others to it. Ideally it’s a reality-based view of the world — and a very good leader, and businessperson, will be able to do this, like Steve Jobs seeing a world of beautiful and friendly electronics. In Myers-Briggs, this is a Judgmental type.

To be an effective user-centered researcher, you have to be much more of the Perceptive type. You have to be willing to see the world as it is, not as you want it to be. And somewhere in the intersection of both perceiving the world as it is, and shaping the world into something it could be while still adhering to its basic and deep laws of human nature, is where the best businesses are found. (I wrote about this dichotomy recently in Design and Uncertainty.)

I think the problem is not so much whether entrepreneurs do the work themselves or have someone else do it for them: it’s whether they’re really, truly capable of listening to the outcome even when it doesn’t agree with their vision of the world. If that is the real problem, then it doesn’t much matter who does the research, although to Klein’s point it’s more likely to sink in when the entrepreneurs are observing the test participants themselves rather than through an additional layer of abstraction.