Monday, October 15, 2012

What users want, or what is best for them?

I went Gleaning on Saturday.  If you are looking for a great way to volunteer in your community, it is an amazing way to go.  Gleaning comes from the biblical idea that farmers should refrain from harvesting the last 10% of their crops and let the poor come and eat.  Today, that is infeasible because the needy are in the inner city, not the farmland.  Boston Area Gleaners is a volunteer-driven organization that asks local farmers to donate this last 10% and we go and harvest it and deliver it to food pantries.  It is especially important these days because many of the needy are in food deserts and have no access to fresh produce.  We went and harvested 1100 pound of carrots, turnips, and mustard greens.  We filled up the truck and had a few bunches of mustard greens left over so we got to bring a few home (nice perk !!).  Not only a great cause, but also great camaraderie among the volunteers who got all muddy and sweaty working our butts off to dig up and box the vegetables.

So now that I have made my plug for gleaning, here is my Human Factors perspective.  The carrots that we dug up were all crazy shapes and irregular sizes.  I was shocked, considering the dozens of straight and equally sized carrots you get in the stores.  Some of these could have been right out of a “mutant aliens take over the Earth” movie.  They had four heads, six legs, and crooked tails.  Out of the 500 or so carrots I pulled out myself, perhaps 10 would have made it to a grocery store.  They rest would have been plowed under. 

Is the American consumer really so picky about the shape?  I understand that taste is a major concern, but I tried some of the bizarre ones and they tasted amazing.  Just as sweet as the straight ones.  Have we been trained to like only pretty carrots?  I have heard that tomatoes are bred to be as perfectly circular as possible, even at the expense of good taste.  I never believed it was that big a deal until this weekend when I discovered it was 90/10, not 10/90.

How should we define the user experience of buying and eating produce?  Is size and shape even close to as important as nutrition and flavor?  We have more food than we need as a nation, so we can afford to plow under the ugly ones.  As a nation.  But that is the problem with looking at averages.  For the needy or those who have little to no access to fresh produce, I suspect their priorities are flipped. 

As HF professionals, how do we balance what our users tell us they want versus what we know is best for them?  I am not trying to be paternalistic here, but there are dozens of published cases where users think one version of an interface is better, faster, easier, or whatever but the objective data says the opposite.  Or when users focus on short term benefits and select one interface when we know that their long term happiness and performance will be better if they choose another one. 

What is our role here?  I am not sure how to make these tough decisions and I suspect it depends on the context.  With enterprise IT, perhaps it is the profitability of the company that matters the most, and we should discount what the employee says.  For healthcare IT, perhaps the patient’s safety and health should matter the most.  For gaming systems, perhaps it is customers’ subjective satisfaction and enjoyment that should matter the most. 

My agriculture example creates a broader challenge.  In this context, two different sets of customer needs are in conflict and the larger and more profitable group is making satisfying the other group impossible. Yet it is that other group that needs our help more.  And the metrics that the large group is using seem kind of superficial.  But if wealthier consumers don’t purchase the ugly produce, farmers don’t make enough profit to donate some to the underserved. 

I don’t know.  I just want to make sure we keep asking the question.  And if you have a spare afternoon here and there, please get out and do some gleaning.