I Want It, I Have It, I Hate It

© Naomi Karten, www.nkarten.com

(This article originally appeared in Perceptions & Realities

The weather seems to have gotten colder as I’ve gotten older. As a
result, the ski jacket that once kept me warm became too skimpy.
Sensible people would simply stay indoors, but that lets me out. So I
needed a jacket that would protect me when the thermometer suggested
I should be indoors, relaxing by the fireplace.

Off I went to the ski shop. It took some searching, but to my delight, I
found the Perfect Jacket. It was roomy enough to fit comfortably over
the quadruple layers beneath. It was long enough to keep the nether
regions from freezing. Its multitude of pockets would make me a
self-sufficient storage system. It zipped up to my nose, ensuring
protection from the wind.

And the color was striking. It was orange. Or rather ORANGE. I mean, it
was bright! With this jacket, you could have seen me from a mile away
on a moonless night. What a find this jacket was.

Until I got home, that is. I tried it on several times, and each time, one
more thing annoyed me. Such as that it wasn’t just long, it was
too long to ski in comfortably. The nose-high zipper would be great
in stormy weather but a nuisance on clear sunny days. The jacket was
big and roomy and heavily-pocketed, which was good, but with the belt
cinched, I looked like a blimp with a belt. And that was bad. When
short people wear big, bulky things, they look like big, bulky, short

And then there was the color. Iridescent neon orange. My husband pointed
out that it would attract dirt. He, being a dirt magnet, would
naturally think of this. I knew he was right, and despite my best
efforts, it would soon be not just ORANGE but filthy

I began to have unpleasant images. I can ski advanced terrain unless it
has strategically situated trees that remind me how much I value my
head. But just because I can ski it doesn’t mean I remain
vertical the entire time. By the 17th time I tried on the
jacket, I could hear the sounds of skiers shouting, “Look,
there goes a short, dirty, orange, belted blimp — and a clumsy
one at that.”

The jacket had to go back. This 24-hour trial period made that clear. But
it did something more. It helped me clarify my requirements. I
thought I knew what I wanted in a ski jacket, but I was wrong. I’d
missed several key features that I wanted the jacket to have, such as
a color that wouldn’t result in signs saying, “This way
to dirty skier.” And I had failed to realize the importance of
other features. Until I saw a concrete example of my specifications,
I didn’t really understand what I wanted.

Similarly, sometimes your customers don’t initially know what they want
even when they’re positive that they do. What my ski jacket
experience helped me appreciate is that specifications are really
nothing more than a starting point, a first approximation. Sometimes,
customers need, in effect, to try on the solution, simulating its
intended use so as to see if it satisfactorily addresses their
requirements and to make adjustments if any are needed.

I returned my jacket, and after a bout of trying on, I found another
jacket, a beautiful, dirt-concealing blue. It lacked several features
I’d previously wanted, but I loved it. If I’d evaluated
this jacket based on my original requirements, I’d have
rejected it. I have now worn this jacket for many a ski season, and I
still love it.

I learned from this experience that in the abstract, it’s
impossible to know which requirements really matter, and of those
that do, which are more important than which others. You might want
to keep this experience in mind as you help your customers define and
refine their own requirements. You can help them avoid signs that
say, “This way to confused customer.”

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