Heffalumps and “Should we build it”?

I wrote this for Dot Net magazine’s blog but it’s hard to find so here it is. Easy to find. Originally published http://www.netmagazine.com/opinions/heffalumps-and-user-experience

Piglet, I have decided something

You’re Pooh. Christoper Robin is anyone with some half baked idea. The Heffalump is your customer.

Don’t let Christopher Robin trick you.

“I saw a Heffalump today, Piglet.” He said carelessly. Piglet says he’s seen one and so does Pooh, both undoubtably lying.

Pooh later looks round to see that nobody else is listening and says in a very solemn voice: “Piglet, I have decided something.”

Lacking, a little in any idea of what the Heffalump would do Pooh hits on the idea that _he_ is a good model of the Heffalump’s behaviour.

“Suppose,” he said to Piglet, “you wanted to catch me, how would you do it?” What follows is the devising of plans, building of traps and the catching (or not) of a Heffalump.”

By means of a trap. And it must be a Cunning Trap.

“We are finding a Heffalump and I know how Heffalumps think” is what gets said to justify someone’s product idea and we just have to believe Christoper Robin. Later on in the project, Pooh has been indoctrinated and the hunt for Heffalump has spread.

You can recognise a Heffalump. They get talked about a lot more than anything which is actually _known_. We go around the room adding layers of convincing, but empty justification:

“I think the user would expect…”

“We think our users want…”

“If it were raining already, the Heffalump would be looking at the sky wondering if it would clear up…”

The Heffalump is the platonic customer who has faults and strange behaviours but all of which are completely understood. I, Pooh understand what our Heffalump wants and how they think. I can find us a customer.

We shall build this Cunning Trap – this Very Deep Pit and catch a Heffalump. We shall build this app and catch ourselves a huge load of users.

I think Heffalumps come if you whistle

If only Pooh knew the difference between Heffalump and fact. If he could test his ideas before we spend months building this Heffalump trap, we could all feel better about what we’re working on and the muttering of “it’ll never work” can be silenced.

Pooh thinks that changing the registration will sell more licenses? Let’s test it.

Hi thinks that 50% of users hitting our site from organic search don’t know how to buy? We can test that.

Things can be tested.

A/B testing, proper UAT, bits of paper and guerrilla testing gives product designers enough information about what will and won’t work to keep the project team from building Very Deep Pits.

You can test the wording of your campaign on a small landing page. The usability can be compared in UAT sessions and when it comes down to squabbling just use A/B testing to arbitrate between the designer and the MD.

I’ve come to see this as spotting the different between a Heffalump and a fact. A Heffalump is something that fills up a meeting, everyone has an opinion on and we can all talk about endlessly because _nothing can be proven_. By definition, everyone’s opinion is as right as everyone else’s.

It is opinion. A Heffalump is a hunch.

A fact can be acted upon. It’s the knowledge that we _need_ to change the registration or that the type faces genuinely confuse users.

To get fact from Heffalump you ask specific questions and run small tests: What can we ask 5% of our users which will answer this? What AdWord campaign can we run as a test for the new offer? What A/B testing can we do which tells us people want free delivery instead of more customer service?

Why Heffalumps hardly ever get caught

The heffalump hypothesis doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take risks, but that you shouldn’t lie to yourself about what is an isn’t a fact. A risk is a wonderful thing. An idiot is not.

There’s still room for the stupid, insane and widely ridiculed ideas, but too many people spend months on small and provably pointless changes leaving no time, budget and will power in the team left for the big ideas.

If a Heffalump idea comes up, say what it is. Turn it into proven fact before hours in meetings and days on the project are wasted so you can save more time for bigger things.

These Heffalump ideas – new products or changes to apps – can often be tested in isolation. So much of what is a product comes down to UX and relatively simple application changes, but the heavy lifting happens when you move all your users to this new idea.

Read anything on lean or agile business models and there’s the recurring theme of reacting to facts: test, refine, repeat. Everyone should do this not just the trendy start ups.

Use paper, UAT, MVT and heaps of stats. You should live knee deep in analytics and mock ups so when the project starts in earnest, you’re as close to right as possible.

And when you realise you’re a little wrong, do a test of what you think is more right before changing everything.

But don’t go hunting Heffalumps.

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