Users: The Most Unhelpful Oracle

There’s an old saying that I mistrust deeply: users don’t know what they want. I think they do, and I think that products that are designed based on the unshakeable conviction that users don’t know what they want routinely turn out to be terrible.

You don’t see it because sometimes this frame of mind produces good results: specifically, it produces good results when the team that builds it wants the same things that users want. The bad results that it produces — which far outnumber the good ones — don’t live long enough to be reviewed and discussed over and over and over again on Hacker News.

In my experience, users do know what they want. It’s just that they can’t always state it in a useful form — which is completely understandable, given that it’s really not their job to do that. They’re a bit like an ancient oracle.

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Reasoning by Analogy is Lazy

One of the easiest ways to “settle” a technical discussion is to resort to an analogy. It took me three minutes of browsing HN (why do I keep doing that to myself?) to find the first one today. When operating systems and computers are discussed, a car analogy is sure to pop up within minutes.

I want to argue that reasoning by analogy is bad when technology is involved. And, more generally, that analogies and “common sense” are bad things to rely on in matters of science and engineering.

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