Season 2, episode 1: “The Child”
Lesson: the best way to understand a group of people is to immerse yourself in them (e.g., user testing)
This post is part of my ongoing quest to watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and pull one startup, entrepreneurship, tech, or investing lesson from each.
“The ship has a new chief medical officer, Dr. Katherine Pulaski, now that Beverley Crusher has been made head of Starfleet Medical. The Enterprise is on an emergency mission to collect plague samples for analysis but Counselor Troi unexpectedly finds herself pregnant. She also finds her pregnancy advancing very quickly with conception to birth expected to take no more than 48 hours. Once born, the child, whom Troi names Ian Andrew after her father, grows at a rapid rate, proceeding through childhood in a matter of hours. Meanwhile Guinan, who tends the bar in Ten Forward, a crew lounge, gives Wesley Crusher some advice.”
Welp, we made it to Season 2 and were rewarded with this mediocre opener, which IMDB users rated a generous 5.5 out of 10. Counselor Troi gets knocked up by a fleck of light while she’s asleep in a full face of makeup and nobody bats an eye, either at the two-tone lip liner or the sudden materialization of a baby.
After he dies or dematerializes or whatever specks of light who become fast-growing human babies do, Troi explains his purpose:
He is a life force entity. When we passed each other in space, he was curious about us, so he thought the best way to learn was to go through the process: to be born, to live as one of us, and in that way, to understand us. He never meant any harm.
This quote provides the lesson for this episode: the best way to understand a group of people is to immerse yourself in them. Taken to the startup context, you can build a product to maybe 80% completion using your experience and intuition about what your users want, but to finish it and make it truly great, you need to get it in actual users’ hands. They have to live with the product for you to understand their needs and reactions, and you have to immerse yourself in their experiences.
User-centric design and experience aren’t new concepts, especially for people working in product roles. And although most people know that putting yourself in the user’s shoes is the best practice — e.g., one of Jeff Bezos’s famous mantras is that Amazon “puts the customer at the center of everything they do” — plenty will say they do it but few actually do, at least with the rigor they should.
Here’s what happens most often: you build the product yourself, using your intuition and experience. Release it and hope for the best. Retroactively measure user engagement through objective results, like number of downloads, time spent in the product, or referrals to friends. Make iterations and see how they change these results.
Here’s the better approach: you build the product yourself, using your intuition and experience. But all along the way, you involve your users. You bring in focus groups. You sit next to them, watch, and listen as they talk out loud about their thoughts as they try the product. You measure eye movements, taps, and hot spots where they focus. You watch videos of them struggling with features (or missing others entirely) to figure out usability. You ask them for subjective feedback and watch their behaviors for objective feedback. You create groups of users who act as development partners and feel a sense of connection to the product and the company. You learn and address all kinds of quirky, odd, invaluable things. Then you release the product and retroactively measure its impact. Then repeat.
Building a good product takes a unique empathy that comes from being an anthropologist and living among the colony of your future or current users.
Also of note: Riker now has his famous facial hair and no longer looks (as) weird: