How Listening To Your Bubble Costs You Money


Google thought Google Buzz was a really smart idea. They thought so because Google employs geniuses and those geniuses got together to create it, test it and decide it was so. They didn’t think people would mind having all of their contacts opened up and revealed to the world. They didn’t think they’d mind because the PhDs at Google didn’t mind. They didn’t think it was an invasion of privacy or possibly dangerous because they live in a different world than the rest of us.

Last week Internet users searched for [facebook login] and, for reasons I’m still not sure of, came to believe that ReadWriteWeb was the new version of Facebook they were all hearing about. They believed it because that’s what came up in their search and users trust search. Those same users then got really angry when they couldn’t figure out how to get to their Facebook walls, because, you know, THEY WEREN’T ON FACEBOOK! They were on a tech news site. Users were so confused that RWW had to write an article explaining that they weren’t Facebook and that if searches wanted to get to Facebook, that they should go to

That really happened.

I know that it sounds ludicrous that Google didn’t consider privacy implications with Google Buzz or that users could mistake a tech news site as being Facebook, but this stuff happens every day. It happens when businesses assume that their customers live in the same bubble that they do. It happens when we create new features, write content and address problems in ways that make sense to the egg heads in our bubble, but read like hieroglyphics to everyone outside of it.

Your target market is not the people in your bubble. Your market is the non-bubble people. The ‘normal’ people. The casual users. That’s who you’re trying to talk to. And you’ve probably forgotten how to speak their language because you’ve spent so many years living in the bubble. So, how do you relearn it?

Ask Them: Yes, I know it is a novel concept, but ask your customers what they want. Ask them what makes sense to them and what doesn’t? What do they find to be a problem in your current set up and what do they like? What do they call this object or that answer? How would they search for it? People like to be asked their opinion, especially when you do it proactively instead of retroactively. Invite some of your most vocal customers or the folks who have been with you for years and get their take on things. They’ll be able to give you a view of your business that you can’t see by yourself.

Use Analytics: Use your analytics to begin to understand user behavior. Take a look at what keywords searchers are using to land on your site. Are they the same ones you’re optimizing for? Use your analytics to find patterns of behavior and common places where searchers are abandoning or getting stuck. Learn the pages on your site that aren’t answering the right questions or meeting their needs. Identify the pages users are landing on and whether they’re answering the questions customers are asking rather than what you thought they were asking.

Remote testing: Sometimes people lie. They don’t even always mean to do it, but they do. If you ask people how they get around your site, they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear or the option that makes them sound the smartest. They won’t admit to trouble areas or not understanding certain terminology. They may not want to tell you they got confused because that may mean there’s something wrong with them and not your site. To help get rid of the bias, do remote testing where you can watch people interacting with your site. This will allow you to spot discrepancies in what they say they do and what they really do. For example, I can keep telling people I’m looking for an emotionally stable boy to date, however, my dating pattern proves that I’m attracted to the psychotically broken ones. Same concept, you know?

We can all sit back and wonder what Google was thinking with Google Buzz or how anyone could mistake a blog for Facebook, but the reality is it’s not that shocking. Businesses miss the mark every day when they start looking at their business from their eyes instead of getting the street-view from customers. The people who live in your bubble cannot tell you how to connect with your customers just like TechMeme does not give you an accurate view of the how normal people perceive the tech world. You only get that from outside the bubble. Don’t live in there. The money, and your customers, are waiting on the other side.

Your Comments

  • cory huff

    Okay, now how do you take this advice and give it to those ‘visionary’ CEO’s who think that their One True Idea is what needs to be imposed on the populace?

  • Ramsez Stamper

    I disagree…Why should companies be held responsible for stupid users?
    The whole thing with Buzz, about it “auto-following” being a “privacy issue” is just dumb. If you are cheating on your partner and they see someone on your list and figure it all out, you can’t blame the company because of your lack of commitment to your relationship.
    People are too quick to place blame on others, learn to be responsible. If you don’t want your information to show online, don’t put it online.
    Also, people who get “confused” because they think one site is another, well, maybe they should learn to read the ADDRESS bar, you know, the thing that tells you what site you’re on? I think they’re the same people who fall for pyramid schemes. Can we stop making excuses for the stupid, and try to force the world to actually grow some brains?

    • Lisa Barone

      Why should you be held responsible? Because those “stupid users” are your customers. And you either find a way to speak their language and get off your own ego or you lose them. It’s easy to call people stupid for not knowing how to manage their privacy preferences, but the truth is, most people don’t know how. Even smart Internet people screw it up. I like to think I’m an intelligent person, and even I had a hard time figuring out how to protect myself through Buzz. It’s confusing.

      I’m all for accountability, but you can’t sit on your pedestal of intellect and call everyone else stupid for speaking a different language than you or getting confused. Really smart people know how to use their intelligence to make complex ideas simple. They know how to be relatable to the “everyone else”. If you can’t do that, then perhaps you’re not as smart as you think you are.

    • Alec Perkins

      Automatic following is more a control issue than a privacy issue. Buzz had me following two people I had never heard of because they were in some email list from a long time ago. It’s not so much that it was exposing people’s secrets (though that was also happening) but that it wasn’t giving any warning or allowing for control. People will shar all sorts of information about themselves — regardless of whether or not they should — as long as they can control it, or think they can. With Buzz, there was no appearance or reality of control.

    • Adam Hallas

      Disagree. Google Buzz was built in part to the confusion over Wave. So Google did look at their customer base and tried to help them. Calling their customers/ users “stupid” is about as stupid as you can get…this coming from a small business owner myself. You can learn so much from your customer base that it really helps drive and focuses your business direction.

  • Alec Perkins

    Users always lie. They never know what they actually need because they’re in their own bubble. You have to force yourself inside their bubble and watch, ideally without them knowing (in the blind study sense, not the creepy stalker sense). You will see a lot more by watching the user than by asking. Obviously you have to listen to what they’re saying, but it has to be compared to actual behavior.

    I’m a total Google fanboy, but Google really dropped the ball with Buzz. They unusually dumped it on an unsuspecting public en mass, insted of their perpetual, invite-only betas. Bad form, Google.

    • Lisa Barone

      Definitely agree that users sit inside their own bubble. The more info you can get by actually watching them, the more accurate that info is going to be. We often have no concept of our actual behavior and actions.

  • Ramsez Stamper

    Hm, so, users can demand that we build everything stupid proof because they don’t want to learn anything. Have you seen “Wall-E” ? That kind of thinking will eventually turn us all into blobs that can’t move and rely on everything to be done for them, including thinking. I refuse to allow that to happen.
    And if people can’t use “common sense” to not put all their information online, and they don’t want to take the time to actually “learn” to use a system instead of having it spoon-fed to them, then they should be the ones suffering the consequences. I’m tired of putting “cape does not enable user to fly” on batman capes. Down with the stupid. I’m not on a high horse, I simply hold others to the same standards I hold myself. If i can do it anyone can.

    • Lisa Barone

      I think there’s a difference between putting the “Warning: Coffee is hot” label on a Styrofoam cup and speaking to people in their own language.

      You’re certainly able to take the “common sense” approach with users, but what’s common sense for you isn’t for everyone else. And you’re going to alienate a large portion of your audience who perhaps should know better, but doesn’t for a number of reasons, some of which may not even be their fault.

      • Ramsez Stamper

        I agree with that, and TBH i do build most everything to be stupid proof because i don’t need clients calling me all the time requesting changes because some user didn’t know what to do somewhere. Writing explanations is handy and visible buttons etc to make it super easy, but sadly it always feel like that putting labels that shouldn’t need to be there.
        Isn’t “common sense” supposed to be “common” and therefore require a “DUH” when someone doesn’t get it?
        No wonder the world is getting dumber, we enable it.

        • Kim M.

          I think that is actually the point … what is “common” to you in your bubble, may not be common to your customers outside of it.

        • James P.

          On behalf of the stupid world, we humbly apologize for not living up to your expectations.

          Rest assured that we hope one day to evolve from our current position so that we, too, can moralize pointlessly while utterly failing to grasp the point of the article.

    • Alec Perkins

      Just because a user can’t figure something out doesn’t mean they’re stupid. The most brilliant person in the world couldn’t flawlessly drive a manual transmission car if they had never used one before. If the interface doesn’t fit their mental models of how they expect it to work, there will be stumbling, and it’s not their fault.

  • Anne Brannon

    I have to admit – the ReadWriteWeb incident sounds a bit ridiculous. If you search “facebook login” and the first result is titled “Login | Facebook,” then I’m not really sure why you’d look any farther down the page.

    However, I’m in combined agreement with Alec and with you, Lisa, that Google Buzz has presented users with a bit of a Privacy and Control issue. And I think it can be partially/significantly attributed to not thinking outside of the mindset of your small work group. Sometimes at my agency, we’ll brainstorm an idea that seems perfect, but after pondering it some more, we’ll realize that perhaps our target audience isn’t as tech savvy as we are. And I wouldn’t think it’s safe to assume that the entire Gmail market is a tech savvy bunch. Sure, most of us techies are Gmail addicts, but that doesn’t mean that my aunt Susan is.

    I just wish Buzz would’ve given me suggestions for who to follow as opposed to automatically following certain users. If they knew who I might be interested in following based on email communications, then just tell me, “Anne, we think you should follow these people.” Ya know, kind of like with Facebook friend suggestions. It’s nice to know you’re there and I can connect with you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to.

  • Stephen Eugene Adams

    Everyone has a least two online personna’s. However, their address books are usually intertwined as well as their Facebook/Twitter contacts and postings. Keeping the two separate is becoming harder and harder and knowing what button to push to keep them separate is totally confusing at times. My old high school girlfriends really don’t care about my current discussions on SEO or Email marketing, so how do we keep them separate? I hang around the social media arena more than most, but I am still one of the stupid customers when it comes to privacy issues.

  • Graywolf

    Always pitch to your audience: Know where/what your average user knows, and pitch to that level. Don’t pitch over their heads, and get frustrated when they aren’t doing it right. What may be plainly obvious to a developer/programmer often isn’t for the average user.

    Be Intuitive or Easy to Grasp: One of the reasons the iPod was so successful is it simplified the user interface. The controls for a TV or DVD player typically has so many buttons it starts to approach the complexity of an airplane cockpit, the iPod removed all of that. It wasn’t intuitive that you had to go in a circle to go down a list (instead of pressing down) but it was easy to grasp once you learned.

    Make Things Easy to Understand: The paleontologist Jack Horner was trying to explain how the spacing of dinosaur footprints could only have been made if they ran. Instead of a complex formula, he walked his feet along the footprints and they where out of step. However when he ran with a slight jump the footprints lined up perfectly. Great teachers make complex subjects easy to understand for everyone.

    Simplicity is Not Dumbing Down: I could say I’ve got a papule with a locus on my gluteus maximus. And most people aren’t going to have clue what I’m talking about, without a dictionary. Or I could just say I have a pimple on my butt, and everyone knows what I said.

  • Matt Soreco

    This exact same thought was on my mind. It seems a lot of Google’s products (latitude, friend connect, etc) have this same kind of bias attached to it. This might seem small potatoes, but the way they kept changing gmail’s contact manager drove me nuts (the suggested contents disaster), and drove home this point. Instead of offering options, it seems some brainiac decided to change it–probably because it made complete sense to them. Looking at the complaints in their forums, you can see some people prefer it one way, others prefer it another way. They did it a complete other way.

  • Heather Villa

    It’s so easy to forget about the ‘normal’ user and to fluff off their opinions, but, you’re right, that is who we are trying to reach, so if they can’t find you or there is a usability issue with your site, then the problem definitely needs to be addressed.

    And remember, for the one person who brought an issue to your attention, there were 10 other who had the same problem, but just clicked away and didn’t bother telling you about it.

    Being proactive in identifying these problems will always help. I like your suggestion of remote testing. Sometimes the user can’t remember what they clicked to get where they are or why they couldn’t find what they were looking for. With remote testing, you could see exactly where the problem originated.

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    Sometimes making decisions from inside the bubble come from being naive. Other times, it’s pure arrogance. Whatever the reason, it’s the perfect opportunity for someone else to come along and grab market share. Since we’re not all Google, it’s probably a bit more important for the rest of us to remember that.