What We Reject Is Who We Are

To do good design, it’s not enough to ask what someone likes, we need to ask what they do. We need to ask what they never do. And when they tell us, ask why. And ask why again.

Likes and opinions are too fleeting to drive design. When doing user research, talking about product strategy, or trying to understand our colleagues’ obscure decision-making process, we have to dig deeper than just superficial opinions or generalizations.

In the “The History of Civilizations,” Fernand Braudel argues that to truly understand a culture or a civilization, we can’t just look at the subtle shifts in what it accepts or practices. We must look first at what it rejects. Only by knowing what a culture holds as worthy of rejection can we truly understand it.

I’m pretty sure I misquoted him terribly but the point remains and has remained with me for years – Looking at what’s only visible will get you nowhere.

This is why I have an allergic reaction to being asked to hold focus groups. Placing people in a setting where they have to speak honestly in front of strangers will get you either the status quo, or, at best, scratch the surface of what truly motivates them.

When asked a question, most people will only say what’s obvious to them or what they’re used to hearing. To try and orchestrate good experiences for people, we have to uncover the motivations, philosophies, and rules by which they lives their lives based on the inter-connectedness of their actions.

A motivation or a philosophy is a deep belief that informs action over the long run. It affects the everyday choices a person makes, and it’s slow to change.

That people change slowly is both a curse and an opportunity. On one hand, we take so much for granted in our day-to-day lives that we have a hard time questioning or articulating the motivation behind what we do.

That people change slowly also means there is plenty of deep, meaningful stuff left to uncover. And if we can find a way to ask why someone has made a choice – what they do, and what they avoid – we’ll not only have something to design a response for, but potentially a door to having a long-lasting effect on someone’s life.


Further reading

An oldie but goodie by Whitney Hess: You Are In Context to Another