“They put their modems in filing cabinet drawers! Can you believe it?!?!”

The crowd roared with laughter. I closed my eyes and started to breathe deeply. Mainly so I wouldn’t throw my chair at the speaker.

The speaker was an industry icon. The gentleman was responsible for many of the cable and telecommunications inventions that we take for granted. After regaling us with stories from the past, the type of adventures one can only have when an industry is still small and scrappy, he was asked about the future.

He talked about ambitious plans to make it easier for people to age at home — everything from connected devices to modular accessibility tools to building code changes. It was while speaking about that last ambition that he made the comment about modem placement. And, in return, a room full of engineers laughed, shook their heads and wondered how consumers could be so stupid.

Your customers are not stupid.

Yes, customers do a lot of unexpected things. But that doesn’t mean they’re stupid.

They’re doing unexpectedly and seemingly stupid things for a reason.

Maybe the modem is a drawer because it’s ugly and ruins the aesthetic of the room.

Maybe the modem’s constant hum irritates the people in the room, distracting them from the work they’re trying to do.

Maybe the modem’s blinking lights keep people awake or make it harder for them to sleep.

There are lots of reasons why modems are in drawers and very few of them have to do with the IQ of the modem’s owner.

You are being lazy

Yes, there is something that can’t be modified to be easier or more intuitive to use but those things are not nearly as numerous as we think.

Cars had to be big to be safe. Until the Japanese made small safe cars

Computers had to be screens in beige boxes next to beige towers. Until Apple made a teardrop-shaped desktop computer in 5 colors

Can-openers and carrot peelers used to be metal tools that required strength and a bit of courage to operate. Until OXO made them more ergonomic.

Saying, “Modems simply have to be black with loud fans and lots of blinky lights, and they must be kept out in the open,” is, at best, lazy and unimaginative and, at worst, profoundly arrogant.

3 steps to stop being lazy and start being smart

1. Ask your customers WHY they’re doing what they’re doing. Actually, go TALK to your customers and ask them why they’re putting their modems in drawers. Do not hide behind a survey — you can’t possibly know all the reasons why so forcing your customers to pick from a list you created or fill in an empty text box will only get you the answers you expect. If you want the truth, go talk to the humans that are buying and using your products

2. Shut-up and LISTEN. After you’ve asked why, stop talking. Don’t suggest possible reasons, thus biasing their answers. Don’t try to take the blame by asking if your design is too complicated or the print in the instruction manual is too small. Just ask the question and listen. If there is silence, wait patiently. Your customers will start talking and, when that happens, you’re likely to learn something.

3. Make changes based on what you heard. Once you’ve heard the answer to “Why?” do not try to convince the customer that their reasoning is wrong and explain to them why they should do things differently. Once you understand their Why, say “Thank You,” and go back to the lab or the office or the drawing board and start solving the problem

  • The modem is ugly. Can we change its shape, size, or color so that it blends in or stands out in a really cool way that transforms it into a status symbol (cough, white Apple earbuds, cough)?
  • The modem is loud. How can we reduce fan speed or improve soundproofing?
  • The blinky lights are keeping people awake at night. How can we eliminate the lights or reduce the number or change the color or change the placement?

Your customers aren’t stupid.

They’re giving you an opportunity to be smart

Take it.

Originally published (with some minor editorial tweaks) in Forbes as “How To Get Smart About Why Your Customers Do Confusing Things”