So You Think You're Customer-Driven?

When somebody tells me they're product-driven, I generally believe them, but when somebody tells me they're customer-driven, I assume they're lying. And usually in the most dangerous way -- to themselves. I've made no secret of my strongly partisan belief that being product-driven is a far superior stance than being customer-driven, but I've never properly unpacked why I think that. Here's the main reason:

To be product-driven you merely have to be a talented person in a specific narrow and easily testable way. But to be genuinely customer-driven, you have to be a better person in a hard-to-test way.

Add to that my priors that talent is common, but genuine good character is rare, and you'll understand why I have the bias I do. This bias extends to myself. I trust my product-driven impulses far more than my customer-driven impulses. I'm just not a good enough person to be properly customer-driven. So if you claim to be customer-driven, you're essentially claiming to be a better human than me, and I'm going to evaluate the claim with extreme prejudice. I'm going to look for bad faith in your stated motives and visible behaviors with a microscope.

This does not mean you should not think about customers and users. That can't actually be helped. When you think about a solution or product, you cannot avoid having thoughts about the people who might be buying or using it. But you must develop a skeptical self-awareness around what those thoughts mean because they will invariably be self-serving in ways you're probably blind to. In other words, you must know what you talk about when you talk about "customers" and "users". To that end, let me offer you my hierarchy of customer-relationship mental models.

Hierarchy of customer-relationship models, from least to most honest

The single most important thing about this hierarchy is that every mental model of a customer or user is also a mental model of yourself, whether or not you are aware of it. So every customer-relationship model comprises a pair of archetypes. My hierarchy consists of 10 pairs, rising from the most bad-faith pair (omniscient god/bug) to the least bad-faith (adult/adult).

Level 1: At the bottom of the hiearchy is the God/Bug relationship (though it's never called that). This comes naturally to people designing/building products that provide a highly abstracted and instrumental view of the customer. As a clicktrail through a website for example, or an Igoe finger-eye being. Or, as in the movie Pushing Tin, airplanes full of real people appearing as dots on a radar screen. It's hard to disentangle a view of a human being from the message of the medium through which you view them. The bad-faith lies in pretending that the massive asymmetric technological advantage over the user/customer doesn't affect how you construct the relationship; that a high-minded terms-of-service can neutralize the attendant moral hazards.

Level 2: Next up, we have the Saint/Sufferer or Saint/Sinner archetype pairs. A common sign of this posture is the use of phrases like "human-centric design" and "listening to customers". These are not innocent phrases. You're claiming an ability to suspend your own drives/motives and and an ability to overcome the message of the medium (analytics logs, focus groups, eyeball trackers) and really see the human behind the behavior. And offering redemption/salvation to innocent sheep through design and emotional labor. Often the saint posture is accompanied by typical saintly behaviors such as confession of your own sins, a great show of humility (Uriah Heep-ish virtue signaling, "I listen to the customer!"), prayer-like "user research" behaviors that don't uncover anything actionable, and constant self-flagellation and preaching at peers. The bad-faith here lies in pretending you're a true, saintly listener/father confessor/intercessionary figure mediating between a user and a technological god.

Level 3: Next up, we have the Anthropologist/Primitive Native pair. This is a more modest posture than Saint/Sufferer. Whether you construct the "native" user/customer in their domain as a savage, noble savage, or cryptic alien sophisticate (most common in B2B products), you're constructing them as a source of data, and yourself as something between a dispassionate observer and a self-aware, situated, participant-observer. You often find this archetype pair in Fortune 500 work practice/workplace anthropology departments. The bad faith in this posture lies in not acknowledging how your work is shaped by the institutional context and the million and one big and little beliefs that make up its false consciousness. You may not personally be a shareholder-value-maximizing machine, but you work for one, and you strive not to discover truths that might be inconvenient to it.

Level 4: The Parent-Child archetype pair is often found in ostensibly service-oriented organizations and people, and is easily recognizable due to the obviously paternalistic overtones, often explicitly acknowledged (as in the "libertarian paternalism" of Nudge philosophy). There are usually large-scale surveys or censuses somewhere. The bad faith here lies in baldly assuming you know better, based on a wonky, narrow view of who you're dealing with. This is the authoritarian high-modernist (as in James Scott's Seeing Like a State) version of being customer-driven that I talk about a lot. The bad-faith here lies in not acknowledging that things you dismiss as noise might be signal to others, and that you're constructing the "customer" or "user" to be legible to you, to alleviate your own anxieties, rather than to be true to the reality of their being.

Level 5: Therapist/Patient or Expert/Layperson. These two roughly equivalent pairs (a therapist is someone who claims special expertise in human nature) are the first ones where an element of good-faith acknowledgement of your own identity limits begins to creep in to the relationship. A good example is the "You can't handle the truth" scene in A Few Good Men. In this model, you acknowledge key asymmetries and advantages, as well as relatively rigid elements of your own nature and motivations captured in the "expert" self-image. Often, there are overtones of "I am doing this for your own good" or "you'll thank me later" accompanying unilateral autocratic decision-making. The bad faith here lies in the belief that in some narrow way, your claim to authority translates into a justified lack of accountability to others affected by your actions. Nobody ever views their "expertise" in a negative light and that affects how you construct a relationship where you cast yourself as the expert.

Level 6: In-Group/Out-Group: This archetype pair is where real honesty begins. You quite simply divide the world into an us versus them ("them" being users/customers), and don't bother really justifying any dehumanizing patterns in the relationship. This is the world of Dark Pattern UX, telemarketing and late-night informercials. A friend of mine was briefly CEO of an openly exploitative telemarketing business selling useless junk to vulnerable people who couldn't afford it. Yes, he's still my friend. I've had some of the most enlightening conversations about customers with him. The movie Boiler Room is a good portrait of this customer-relationship model. The bad-faith in this does not lie where you might think. The openly acknowledged and even celebrated part of the exploitation (often manifesting as insulting, profane, and derogatory ways of talking about customers) is actually the good-faith part. The bad faith often lies in more abstract macroeconomic and metaphysical justifications at the business model level ("The ecosystem needs scavengers" or "the world is Darwinian" or "we just cull the weak", or "the customers aren't saints either, they try to screw us over too").

Level 7:  Con-Artist/Mark: This archetype pair is, oddly enough, the first one I'm personally comfortable occupying. There is a certain deep honesty to simply admitting you're a slightly evil rascal who is out to take advantage of gullible others who probably don't deserve it, simply because you can. An excellent read exploring the psychology of this kind of customer relationship model is the classic 1952 essay by Erving Goffman, On Cooling the Mark Out. This is where customer/user relationship models live right next door to outright criminal enterprises, organized crime, phishing schemes, and Nigerian princes. You might think there can be no bad faith or hypocrisy in such openly exploitative postures, but there is. The bad faith can usually be found in whatever self-imposed honor-among-thieves code of conduct governs how the relationship is constructed. "I only steal, I don't kill," or "I don't do anything violent", and so on. It is revealing that the complicity of the "mark" is often an essential feature of this relationship. This complicity is not merely required for the mechanics of the manipulation. It is also morally necessary for the con-artist to justify the scam to themselves. In making such justifications and constructing such self-serving honor codes, the con-artist abdicates any broader responsibility to society and awards themselves a lesser sentence for their admitted sins. Con-artists is constantly plea-bargaining with themselves.

Level 8: Honorable Warrior/Worthy Adversary: In this archetype pair, there is honest acknowledgement of the unavoidable adversarial element in any customer/user relationship, and a genuine attempt to "pick on someone my own size" and construct a fair relationship game. Think of it as a Bushido approach to customer relationships, mano a mano. There is also room for growth in this relationship model, even if it is of a finite, limited sort within the particular gamification and stylized spirituality. One of my favorite explorations of the operative psychology is the movie Big Kahuna. There is a governing sense of what it means to relate to customers in an honorable way that also honors your own job and the part you play in the larger economic universe. Highly recommended. The bad-faith element here is the belief that a code of conduct can manufacture fairness out of unfairness and transmute power gradients into level playing fields. Many conservative social programs exhibit this kind of "honorable bad-faith". In the business world, Twitter's customer-relationship posture exhibits this kind of bad faith. I like the Anatole France line to remember this:  "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread."

Level 9: Self-Actualizer/Self-Actualizer: Despite the pious sounding name of the pair, this is actually an almost entirely honest relationship model. It simply means you acknowledge that neither the customer/user, nor you, is a finished product. You're both on open-ended evolutionary paths where many things about both parties' natures are either undetermined or subject to change, and you construct the relationship to allow for such change. This means the relationship is tolerant of mistakes and broken promises, and open to renegotiations and forgiveness. Neither party holds the other to commitments when they turn out to be harder to deliver on than expected due to new factors, and both are willing to constantly work deepen a relationship within the spirit of an evolving agreement rather than the letter of a static contract or TOS. There is still room for bad-faith here though. You simply might not be as capable of growth as you pretend to be, and might repeatedly forgive yourself too easily rather than actually working to seek forgiveness from those whose trust you've abused. Power gradients make this easier. This manifests as repeated failures and transgressions and breaches of trust, followed by completely sincere apologies (and press releases that say the right things). And yet things keep going downhill.

Level 10: Adult/Adult: Nobody ever gets here, but it's nice to have an aspirational Level 10. A customer relationship model where all limiting assumptions about yourself and the counterparty fall away, and you're simply growing together. No rules.

The Customer is Dead, Long Live the Customer

My point with making up this hierarchy is not what you might think. I don't think you should strive to climb this ladder or view it as a sort of capability maturity model, at least not with explicit efforts. It is just too hard for ordinary mortals. Instead, you should probably do the simpler thing and be product-driven.

Maybe indulge in a manifesto now and then, but fundamentally focus on creating value by building better products that make use of deeper scientific and technological ideas rather than striving to be a better person through customer-centeredness. Look for new non-zero-sum wealth at a non-human locus, not in your own ability to be a morally superior person.

Use this hierarchy as a mirror rather than a prescription, so you at least know when you're pretending to be more saintly than you are, and are sensitized to the ways bad-faith might be creeping into your behaviors. And sure, do your user testing, focus groups, cognitive interviews, card-sorting exercises, surveys, and field observations. Just don't pretend that makes your work spiritually customer-centered business and based on real listening. You're ultimately not listening, you're constructing.

I sometimes think the industrial economy is based on a lofty, overarching, hypocritical sentiment that constructs the customer the way feudal societies used to construct monarchies. _The customer is king. The customer is dead, long live the customer. _

In a single breath, we at once manage to exalt and oppress each other via an abstraction we impose on ourselves. We repeatedly construct human beings as "customers", kill them in that killbox, replace them with fresh meat, and celebrate the entire process as a kind of economic worship of ourselves when it is anything but.

The entire concept of "customer" (or "user") rests on a profound sort of bad faith at the very heart of industrial consumerized society, and it's worth reflecting on that a bit more as we try to construct better models of ourselves and our fellow humans for the post-industrial world.

Drucker understood this when he proclaimed that the purpose of a business is to create a customer. There is a paradox there: you can't at once create a thing and study it as though it were a naturally occurring thing. A model of being "customer-driven" is only as good as its acknowledgement and accommodation of this central paradox.

What do I mean by "bad faith" here? Well, there's a whole deep existentialist account of bad-faith in the sense I'm talking about here. In brief, any conceptualization of two parties in a commercial relationship will necessarily put an assumed archetypal transactional essence before the bare fact of the existence of the other. The phrase popularized by existentialist philosophers, existence before essence, hints at why modeling a relationship at all is necessarily a bad-faith move to some degree. This great post by John Michael Greer, Bad Faith and Worse Hairstyles, (ht Ankur Sharma) gets at the subtlety of this point, but if you don't want to dive into the philosophy, the tldr is that when you think in terms of "customer" or "user", you are inevitably imposing a map of a market onto a territory of humanness, and blinding yourself in some way that introduces an element of bad faith into your actions.

This means the behaviors in the relationship proceed on the basis of hidden or unacknowledged self-limiting assumptions about yourself and the counterparty that subvert the very possibility of the relationship being an honest one. This leads to all the pious lies of the consumer economy.

You can try to cleanse yourself of those lies. Or you could just build something you enjoy building and deal with the consequences as best you can.

If you are unwilling to admit to yourself that you think of yourself as an omniscient god and the customer as a bug under the microscope, you're likely to piously proclaim that the "customer is king" and put on theaters of contrition around repeated breaches of trust. Even as you figure out better and better ways to profitably reroute the bug even if that ends up killing it.

Maximizing lifetime value is ultimately not the same thing as valuing life itself. I'll believe your claim of being customer driven when you can demonstrate that you are aware of the difference between the two.

So, Do You Feel Saintly, Punk? Do You?

The broader point I want to make here is this: The behaviors we label "being customer driven" are deeply complicit in everything problematic about the industrial economy, not a cure for its ills. If you think you can fix the problems of the industrial world by being more "customer driven" or "human-centric" in your work, you're lying to yourself in a very deep way.

The core of the complicity lies in the assumption that we can in fact "listen" to those we construct as customers or users (and equally, when we put on the mask of "customer" ourselves, pretending that we can in fact be heard). There is some sort of Heisenberg principle here: you can either construct a customer or listen to them. Not both. To be product-driven is to admit that there is a limit to your ability to listen, due to your investment in construction.

I recall a spirituality quote (attributed to some mystic, I can't recall which one): "to truly listen, one must first develop an inner silence." This means when you claim to be truly listening to customers/users, you've either really killed your inner dialogues and developed a saintly inner silence, or you're in denial about the very human, and likely somewhat base, motives you're bringing to the construction party you're pretending is a listening party. Which do you think is more likely?

The entire Internet in a way, is a proof of our collective failure to be as saintly as we pretend to be. In his excellent essay, The Web is a Customer Service Medium, Paul Ford argues that the essential message behind most things said online is the plaintive whine, "why wasn't I consulted?"

Look around online. Vast numbers of people claim to be listening. Very few feel listened to. Nobody feels sufficiently consulted on all the things that end up affecting their lives, and so they turn to everything from ranting on Yelp to trying to make magic with memes. All in a desperate attempt to be heard in a society and economy that pretends to be based on listening but is in fact based on constructing; that pretends to acknowledge existence, but is in fact about imposing an essence.

Can we do better? I don't know. But we can at least turn a skeptical eye to our elaborate theaters of listening. Maybe something good will come of that.

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