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What if the user...?

If you’ve ever experienced design by committee, you know it can be impossible to argue that anything is unnecessary.

You start off with an idea of which features to kill, but, one by one, they are all justified with the words “but what if the user wants to...?” Sitting around a conference table, it’s easy to imagine that, yes, a user might want to do just that. So the feature stays. By the time you get to the bottom of the list, you have most likely added a few more.

The “what if the user wants to...?” test allows any feature to get back into your product. If all a feature has to do is meet the “what if...?” test, then your plans will become choked with irrelevant junk. Like a traveler cramming his suitcase for every possible eventuality, you’ll find yourself crushed beneath the weight of “what if...?”

It’s fine to ask yourself “what if...?” when you mean “what if we solved the problem by...?” Dreaming up new ways of fixing things is one way to make your users’ lives better.

What’s not fine is using “what if...?” to dream up new problems or to guess at what’s important to your users. Saying “what if the user wanted to...?” is a way of scaring people into imagining they have missed something. To cope with that fear, people are asked to divert time, effort, and money into adding features.

So “what if...?” can lead to fear that takes a powerful hold on meetings.

If you find yourself (or anyone else) saying, “What if the user needs to...?” there’s only one answer: go find out whether it’s really important to your users. Ask, “How often do the people I’m designing for encounter this problem?” If the answer is “hardly ever,” then drop the idea and move on.

Stop guessing “what if...?” and go find out what is.

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