User satisfaction and Technology Dysmorphia

Body Dysmorphia is a serious mental health condition where a person will fixate on aspects of their appearance and perceive them as flaws even though these things are not often noticed by others. For example, a person may repeatedly get botox injections because they think their lips or cheeks don’t look right. After each treatment they feel a small amount of relief, but soon after they are looking in the mirror again, right back to believing their lips aren’t full enough.

I bet your technology teams are doing work right now that is worryingly similar to that botox injection.

Human experience is subjective. Every day something happens to you that is the worst thing that happened to you that day. Just because one person got hit by a car and another person spilled coffee on their favorite shirt doesn’t change how each individual feels about their experiences. We are not good at ranking these experiences in a global sense, only against our own, and even then we’ve got a very short memory. So those two extra clicks in your workflow that affects users about 30% of the time? Some days the extra clicks will be the worst part of somebody’s day.

Because of all this, user satisfaction scores can be a bit of a trap. If we overweight their importance in how we build product roadmaps, or use them in isolation, we may enable a type of Technology Dysmorphia. But our responsibility as product leaders is not just to try and make people happy - it’s to make them productive.

Your users will not like this. They will send you angry emails and copy your boss. “Why can’t you do this one simple thing for me? It’s the most annoying thing about my job and it would be so easy for you to fix it!” And your boss may reply just to you and say, “Yeah! Why can’t you??”

A conversation with some behavioral psychologists helped me think about a potential key to the answer. We have to qualify satisfaction against something objective and founded on the value your product is supposed to deliver.

If you build a new landing page and your users give lots of bad reviews about the layout, but time on task goes down by 25% and conversions go up, is the landing page a failure?

I tried this out recently. A really great group of my customers were asking me why we hadn’t addressed this or that opportunity with one of our products. Rather than just taking notes of their suggestions (which I still did), I also took a minute to talk about what we had been doing. Since March of this year we’ve shaved off a collective 5.5 years per month of time spent across all our users in the tool they were asking about through performance optimizations while also increasing adoption of the tool. You see, we already knew about most of the things they were asking about, but we judged the value of those ideas as less than the value of making the tool more efficient.

When I explained this to them they were excited, grateful, and relieved. Throughout the conversation the theme was consistent: we just want to understand why you’re not doing the things we’re asking about. Our users don’t want us to waste time and money addressing things that are less impactful to their productivity, no matter how emotional they may be when they ask for them.

The trick isn’t in getting good at prioritization, that’s pretty easy. The trick is keeping your users informed without making them feel alienated. I still need to figure out how to do that at scale, but I’m learning.