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What we want

In the US, a behavioural scientist was interested in understanding the impact of social interactions on our mood as part of a larger research to study the effect of social interactions on our happiness.

So, they decided to run an experiment on train commuters that spent an hour or more commuting by train for work. They recruited commuters into three groups. They asked people in the first group to not interact with anyone else on the train and to mind their own business. They asked people in the second group to just go about their commute as they usually did. And they asked the third group to strike up a conversation with someone else on the train with them.

At the end of the study, they found that the people who found the commute most pleasurable were the ones who were involved in conversations (either initiated by them or by someone else). And the commuters who found it least pleasurable were the ones that did not converse with anyone.

So, they went on to present these findings to the train company.

A while later, they were surprised to find out that the train company was instituting 'silent couches' in the train - couches where nobody could talk on the phone or to each other. When the researchers asked them why, the train company told them that while their research was fine, they had run surveys asking commuters what they wanted and the majority ask was for 'silent couches' on the train.

The researchers laughed out loud as the commuters in their study had told them they had wanted a silent commute as well. But only when asked to talk to fellow commuters did they do it and found it more pleasurable.

I have experienced hundreds of such examples in my work as a product manager, where users often tell us what it is they want when what will actually make their experience better is something else altogether.

This is why we don't blindly build what users say they want. Instead, we define our hypothesis as to what will happen to user behaviour when we build a feature and then test that hypothesis.

However, behaving with such statistical rigour in our personal lives is incredibly hard. We are wired to have biases and expectations from the interactions that we have and based on that, we decide to do or not to do something. Like the hundreds of commuters that sit next to each other for over an hour, without saying a word to each other.

Our biases are quite often not grounded in reality. And unless we explore new experiences, we will never find out if they are something we will enjoy. I have found this to be especially true while traveling when I come across strange new foods and cultures.

Several years ago, when I first went to Italy, I decided that I should live by "When in Rome, live like a Roman". Since then, I've been open to a lot of new experiences without prior judgment and always approach them with an open mind. Once I experience it, if I don't enjoy it, I won't do it again. However, there have been numerous cases where I have enjoyed something that I never would have thought I would.

We think we know what we want. But we rarely do. So stay open to new experiences and let that lead to the judgment.

(Hat-tip to The Happiness Lab by Dr Laurie Santos)

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