Contradictions within User Opinions and Behaviors: Identifying Evidence-based Opportunities to minimize False Discovery

One of the biggest pitfalls of the design process is the elusive and ambiguous nature of customer feedback and the way it translates from the earlier stages of research into discovery.

There have been instances from the past when design teams have encountered contradictions in the way customers think, feel, and behave. An example of this would be the story of the Yellow Walkman.

The Yellow Walkman

In 1999, Sony held a focus group study to know user opinions about a sporty yellow-colored variant of the Walkman.

Sony Walkman WM-F35
Sony Walkman WM-F35
Sony Walkman WM-F35 by Brian Procell on Wordpress

The rationale of conducting the focus group was to observe and capture initial thoughts about the product. People walking on the streets were asked their opinion about the new sporty edition. Most users reacted positively and mentioned that they were impressed by the new look compared to the mundane old black variant.

A few moments later, research participants were presented with a choice to pick up one Walkman from two stacks of yellow and black variants. Surprisingly, every participant walked away with the black variant.

This contradiction brings up an unconventional yet popular approach amongst product teams.

Do we ask the users or observe them?

As Henry Ford, the architect responsible for the popularization and adoption of automobile assembly line mass-production, once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

On similar lines, Steve Jobs once said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That is why I never rely on market research.”

In the context of Ford and Apple Inc., both the companies were able to gain a large user base in the market when the existing design solutions started to look like a problem once they reinvented and reintroduced new concepts. These concepts redefined product landscapes to be much more efficient and intuitive compared to the existing ones.

Focus Groups
Focus Groups
‘Focus Group’ by Markertoonist

Their concepts didn’t stem directly by asking the users what they wanted but through their ability to bring a fictional idea to life and leverage various pieces of technology to achieve what they believed the users would love. The primary reason could be the inability of users to envision something they didn’t know was possible.

However, this doesn’t imply that users weren’t part of the process. User feedback was observed and tested throughout multiple phases to understand the flaws and loopholes of the design, but they weren’t the primary source for the product discovery or the inception of the concept.

The Yellow Walkman research demonstrates the presence of differences in the way customers express their thoughts, the way they feel about a specific thing, and their actions when it comes to actual decision-making.

First rule of Usability
First rule of Usability
‘First rule of Usability? Don’t Listen to the Users.’ by Jacob Nielson for the Nielsen Norman Group

This very notion has been captured in an article by the Nielsen Norman Group that mentions, “To design the best UX, pay attention to what users do, not what they say. Self-reported claims are unreliable, as are user speculations about future behavior. Users don’t know what they want.”

To add perspective, one of the most effective ways to collaboratively observe and visualize differences in the customer impressions of an artifact is to synthesize an Empathy Map early on in the design process.

Empathy Mapping

Empathy Mapping, devised by Dave Gray, is a collaborative tool to synthesize and articulate various aspects of what a user says, thinks, does, and feels about a specific artifact.

Empathy Map
Empathy Map
The four quadrants of an Empathy Map by the Nielsen Norman Group

An Empathy Map gives the product team detailed insights about ways the user can perceive and respond to a specific concept under different circumstances, use cases, scenarios, and contexts. It also paves the way for eliminating any ambiguity that the product team might have about their knowledge of a specific set of target users or marketspace.

Over the years, Dave Gray has come up with several revisions to the original version of the Empathy Map framework.
The above diagram demonstrates the last updated version that now includes:
1. Inclusion of goals to establish the context.
2. A clear demarcation of external perceptions (what the users do, see, say, hear, and what the users need to do) to the internal perceptions (what the users think and feel).
3. The correct order of activities.

Updated version of the Empathy Map
Updated version of the Empathy Map
Updated version of the Empathy Map by Dave Gray on Medium


Even though this framework might look straightforward, it is crucial to synthesize Empathy Maps to achieve the following outcomes:
1. Understanding user perspectives by capturing what they see in various scenarios.
2. Observing what bothers them, what do they fear, and what makes them uncomfortable.
3. Identifying opportunities that motivate users to adopt or leverage a new concept.
4. Maximizing gains of retaining a new concept for the long term.
5. Examining contradictions between what users say and what users do.

The key to capturing user needs while synthesizing an Empathy Map is to document them for the five levels of Maslow’s Pyramid shown as follows:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by Andrew Chapman on Medium

A Hybrid Approach:
What if stakeholders could not only co-create but also co-inquire and co-evaluate?

This article highlighted two different approaches of product discovery and design:
1. Driven by the inception of a radically new concept that the users might not envision.
2. Driven by identifying opportunities through Empathy Mapping.

But how about a hybrid approach where stakeholders of participatory design co-inquire and co-evaluate parallelly?

In the same way as Ford and Jobs, each stakeholder might have a different perspective of the wide range of possibilities and a different viewpoint of looking at a problem. They could have a set of assumptions that they must validate before shaping their unique design decisions.

Not only could they build upon their concepts as a co-creator, but parallelly co-inquire others while co-evaluating what they say, think, do, and feel about the design themselves during each phase of the design process to synthesis better outcomes, eliminate ambiguity, and minimize false discovery.

Digital Product Designer