by Steven

The gaoler’s daughter, in Wind in the Willows, may be the wisest Product Owner I’ve never worked with.

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When she asks Toad to describe Toad Hall, the fabulous Mr Toad launches into a detailed estate agent’s description including its size, when it was built, its sanitation and distance from local amenities. 

Our hero the gaoler’s daughter, however, is not impressed by the statistics – Toad’s accurate, but lifeless data report. To her, mere numbers mean nothing. 

Instead she wants to understand the life of the place – who lives there, who visits, and the scandals, the tragedies, the triumphs and the everyday drudgery. If it were not the abode of a reckless amphibian, you could say she was interested in the humanity of it all.  

She instinctively knows that numbers don’t tell the human story. At best, they describe a shell. A dry outline which less enlightened people, or people who miss insight in the clamour to find evidence, can mistake for the real thing. “Tell me something real!” she implores.

As researchers, we should be like the gaoler’s daughter. We should look beyond the numbers. Because we are not scientists, mathematicians, or statisticians. We’re designers! 

We make intuitive leaps, we use our imagination, we experiment, we make mistakes. But everything we do is based on understanding human behaviour, and applying the specialist knowledge we learned at design school and the years of on-the-job experience we’ve gained since. We have honed our intuition to an extent that we can rely on it – and can verbalise and explain our thinking to non-designers.

But it’s all based on real insight. 

The ‘something real’ that we learn when we talk to users can be small, and easy to miss. But the quality of our work can hinge upon it. It might be a chance, off-script comment from a single user that gives us the breakthrough, or it might come from a particular way of connecting comments from different users. It may come from a chance piece of unconscious body language, or a slight hesitation in a response. Or from the sensitivity to listen to what is not said, as much as what is.

What is certain is that the ‘real thing’ is rarely found in a spreadsheet full of numbers.

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