Recently, while at lunch with my friend and colleague, Neil Redding, we got into a discussion regarding Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. The conversation centered around both men’s ability to see, so clearly, the vision for their products and to be able to push through to see that vision to fruition. The amazing part is not that they were able to push through to get to their vision and thus create amazing products and experiences, but that their visions were usually right! I believe that there are common traits & abilities that both men had that allowed them to have a clear, correct vision. And, no, I don’t think it’s just their genius (well at least genius isn’t the only thing). As a UXer, I’m sure you wanna know these traits so that you too can design amazing experiences. In order to explain it to you, let’s investigate our two amazingly successful examples so that we can uncover how to become successful like them.
First, let’s take a look at Mark Zuckerberg, or at least what we know of him from the film the Social Network as well as from general observation. Mark is an individual who, to be frank, is plain socially awkward. We see this both in his inability to be personable during real life interviews, and also in the film where he was more focused on becoming accepted and liked (pun intended) than he was about almost anything else. However, he could never quite make it to the social status he was looking for. We can see that not being in the “in crowd” meant that Zuckerberg was detached from it. He was, however, desperate to be a part of this crowd. I believe that it was this desperation that drove him to observe, in great detail, what interested people about in crowds, social groups, popularity, and their cliques so that he, one day, could enter this world.
From his detached observation, he was able to see what factors mattered to people when socializing and interacting, and he notated all of this in his attempt to “get in”. The important thing to note about Zuckerberg’s detachment is that because he was so far detached from those he observed, he was able to clearly observe them, without personal bias. This was key. He then used his technology skills, coupled with his findings to create Facebook, a “social network” that he knew would be cool and well liked among users. Thus, Zuckerberg’s gut feelings about what would make Facebook successful or not, aka his vision, were really due to his knowledge of the human interactions he had been observing in his quest to become socially accepted. If he had been knee deep in these interactions instead of detached, he wouldn’t have been able to observe them so clearly.
In our second example, we look through a different lens at the late Steve Jobs. Mr. Jobs social ability seems in contrast to that of Zuckerberg. Although he was sometimes mentioned as being cruel to staff and employees, Jobs was known to have very close and loyal friends. He’s been described as having a charisma about him that attracted others to him and we see and feel this during his Mac World speeches. However, I would venture a guess, that although he was well liked, Jobs’ ability to think in realms that his friends could not and his place as a highly intelligent man kept him detached from others. Of course he was well liked and probably had great relationships, but I would bet that there was something that kept him at a distance. In fact, you can almost see it as he is on stage in some of the videos. He too used this detachment from the masses, to observe them unbiased, and then design products and services that fit their needs and exceeded their wants.
In both of these examples, we see the first two traits that these men had, detachment and observation. We see how important it was for them to be and stay disassociated, in order to better observe their users’ needs and motivations. This is UX research 101 right? In order to be great observers and researchers, UX Law* tells us that we have to separate ourselves from the subjects we are researching enough that we can observe their behaviors and motivations unbiasedly. Zuckerberg and Jobs did this exact thing.
However, something we didn’t note was what they did with those observations, the third trait that set them apart and made them successful. That is that, almost assuredly, they also had a sense of empathy in order to turn the needs they observed into solutions that would make sense to their users. This feeling of empathy in Zuckerberg’s case most likely comes from his desire to be liked, accepted and socially apart of something bigger than himself. In the case of Jobs, the feeling of empathy came from his want to solve and design for human problems.
So we see that the secret traits that set these two men, as well as many other men and women apart from the norm, is their ability to detach from their subjects, observe them, and then instill empathy in order to solve their subjects’ problems and make their worlds better. The outcome of detachment and observation is the ability to clearly see the needs and wants of our users. By adding in an empathic point of view, one is able to fill the gaps in their subjects’ actions as well as fulfill their subjects’ motivations.
Perhaps the late Mr. Jobs, and Mr. Zuckerberg really are geniuses of our time. I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that they are both, in their own right, some of the smartest and most successful people of our time. But, when we dissect what sets them apart from us, we can see that there are some pretty common, practicable traits that we can harness in order to make ourselves better without having to be geniuses. Thus, greatness is not out of our reach, UX. In fact, it is right their in front of us. But in order to reach it, we have to detach, observe and empathize. By doing that, we are creating innovative experiences.
* Note: There isn’t an official UX Law. It is a sarcastic term for the dogmas that we hold onto. Unfortunately, there aren’t laugh tracks available for blogs to queue this joke :-).