Why listening to your IT users matters

Your confirmation bias may be keeping you from being effective with your business users.

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A confirmation bias is the tendency to fit new evidence into an existing mode of thinking. It is also the tendency to look only for new evidence that would fit into an existing mode of thinking. 

Confirmation bias is not all bad since the sun rising each morning does not send us scurrying under the bed to hide from the bright light, but fits into our existing mode of thinking that morning follows night. (Whether the rising sun makes you want to hide under the bed depends on factors outside the scope of today's topic.)

Where a confirmation bias is not helpful is when you discount new evidence or new experiences such that you do not change how you think or how you act. The Mars Climate Orbiter[1] mission famously failed because of a mismatch between "American" and Metric units. Scientists saw what they expected to see and when the potential discrepancy was brought to their attention, they discounted it.

As IT people, we have a confirmation bias. When IT people hear non-IT people talk about technology, we all tend to slot their feedback into our existing biases and it ties into how we react to rogue IT.

Perception is reality

"The system is too hard to use," or "It doesn't do what I want it to do," fits into the bias of "You should not have skipped the training we provided."

You might conclude from "It's too slow," or "It's broken," that the system is not slow and it is not broken, because, well, it is not! You know this because you have dashboards and metrics. Your bias may be to discount that feedback and to find information in your metrics to back up your bias.

You need to set aside your preexisting biases and look at the situation from your users' perspective. Stop trying to fit their facts into your world view. The only thing that matters to them is they cannot do what it is they are trying to do.

Seek to understand

Show empathy regarding the problem without being condescending. This could be as simple as saying, "That must be frustrating. Let me see what I can do to fix the problem." One of the users' biases you may need to overcome is the perception that IT does not care.

Ask clarifying questions. Try some of these: What are you trying to do? What did you see? When did it stop working? Has it ever worked before? Are other people having the same problem?

If you are able to resolve the situation, do so. If you are not, stick with it, but be sure to get back to the user who had the problem. Consider that one of the users' biases could be that IT people don't follow up.

Adjust your biases

If a specific user's behavior actually fit into your existing bias, don't be smug. Figure out what you can do to help your all your users overcome the mismatch of expectations. For example, if a missed training session really was the issue, is there a way you can record the next training session and make it available on demand?

If an individual user's behavior did not fit into your existing biases, adjust your world view to incorporate the new experience. If it turns out the system is slow when a user is VPN'd in over a free airport Wi-Fi, then you might adjust the user guide and the training to mention that and other similar situations. Your metrics might not show this situation because you didn't think to track it. Be happy you learned something!

Having a pre-existing view of how your IT world operates is a good thing. It lets you get to the heart of many problems without having to consider items that are irrelevant almost all of the time. However, when your view becomes too rigid to react to new information, you need to adjust.


The opinions expressed in this Blog are those of Paul T. Cottey and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.

[1] Here is Wikipedia's take: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Climate_Orbiter

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