Just Ask

Alan BelniakGeneral1 Comment

I helped design a small social network for a collection of students passing through a particular program in graduate school.  The issue was that people inside each graduating cohort networked well within that class, but networking from class to class was a challenge.  So, a few students and I set out to solve that, and we created an online social network.

In the design of that, the five or so of us each had some ideas of how the site might look, how it would operate, and the components of the site (a blog, a wiki, Twitter feeds automatically pumped in, etc.).  I took the lead on the project and guided the process along.  There were certain aspects I preferred over others, that’s for sure.  And I even disagreed with one of my partners over some design elements.  But I didn’t care.  I didn’t care because I wasn’t designing the site for me.  I – and we – were designing the site for our class, past classes, and future classes.  So it didn’t matter, to a large degree, what I wanted.  It mattered what the users wanted.

So we asked them. I suggested this to my group.  Many were receptive of the idea, and some were hesitant.  I was shocked – why is asking the users what they want met with such disdain and apprehension?  I soon realized that this was not unique to this project.  I encountered similar issues at my current place of employment, and reflecting back on my career, it has happened in the past.

Instead of forcing through my preferred layout or another group mate’s preferred layout, I created a survey and sent it out to the class.  I worded the introduction with something along the lines of “this is your network”.  And we asked for preferences and feedback.  And we used those results with a dash of common sense to drive the content.  In the end, it wasn’t totally what I wanted, but that was OK.

One reason I can think of for not asking help or assistance is looking weaker for doing so.  I think that this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Seeking validation on an idea, or pressure-testing it with peers is a great way to not get blindsided when you meet with your boss or others.  Plus, it likely gets you a better answer faster.  If there are other reasons for not asking, please let me know your experiences in the comments.

This topic came up today in a lunch conversation with a colleague of mine, and it got us both thinking: why is it so difficult for people to ask? Done right, and done often, it yields far greater insights than acting alone.  Am I missing something here?  If so, please let me know in the comments.