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Last modified: 12 March 2015

Stay inside the bubble: when listening doesn’t work.

A response to an excellent piece on working outside of the bubble by Matt Edgar.

This is a quick post, not a perfect post. I’m giving myself two hours after work to do it because otherwise it won’t get done. It's far too long. There are mistakes, errors, and flaws in my logic. I’ll fix them later. Or maybe I’m just wrong. Let’s talk about it.

My first thought is that Matt and I probably mostly agree. “Getting outside the bubble” is important. “Creating a safe place to get things done” is important. It’s the balance that matters. Where we might disagree is where the ideal balance is.

Getting outside a bubble, engaging with consumers or citizens, getting feedback during project development — these are all important in service and product design. They are things that require considerable interest, training, and experience to do well. When they are done well, by experts, they add huge value to projects.

But when they are done poorly they destroy projects by creating unworkable and unwanted solutions or common-sense compromises that offer little real value. Most of the time, when we get outside of a bubble we do it very badly. Even worse, it distracts us from doing what we set out to achieve.


My argument rests on the difference between expressed preference and revealed preference. These incredibly useful economic terms were coined by Paul Samuelson and helped him become the first American to win a Nobel Prize in Economics.

Most simply, an expressed preference is what people say they want. A revealed preference is what people really want. If they overlapped well, Matt and I would completely agree. They don’t. In fact, they are very frequently complete opposites. People don’t know what they want. Listening to them is a distraction.

Enough theory, let’s have some examples.



Nokia released the N800 internet tablet on the 8th of January 2007. The latest in their line of internet tablets it had no keypad, and could be operated by touch or a stylus. It had a web browser, skype, and lots of apps. It had been developed with huge panels of diverse consumers all around the world and improved upon previous internet tablets. It and its partner phone the N95 were precisely what people wanted and they were produced by a transparent, ecologically friendly company who built their smartphones in Europe and treated their staff well.

The day after Nokia released the N800, Apple announced the iPhone. Developed in complete secrecy, its operating system was so unstable that no user-experience testing had been done on a device. Famously, at the live demo, the developers drank shots in relief each time that Steve Jobs showed a feature without crashing the phone. The iPhone had almost none of the features most requested by users – no Bluetooth, no 3G, no keypad, no picture messaging, no installable applications. It was developed completely inside the bubble and built in factories in China.

Nokia were guaranteed victory.

In 2013, Apple sold 150 million iPhones. This year they will sell even more. In 2014 Nokia made their last mobile phone.


Ryanair, Ikea, Amazon, Google, ...

This isn’t an isolated example. Ryanair’s great success has come largely from penalising customers and ignoring their complaints. Other airlines got out of the bubble, designed services for the people, and failed like Nokia. Ryanair’s 'about us' page is wonderful, it doesn’t mention listening to customers once. Similarly, Ikea, Amazon, and Google’s success has come largely from not providing the in-store experience or customer service that customers consistently say they want. They’re in a bubble and it’s working!

Even when it comes to running cities this matters. People have a long list of things they want in the places that they live and many councils have gone to great lengths to listen. This often has disastrous results. People want to drive to work and feel safe. So we have car parks, urban motorways, and fences. It turns out that what people really want, above all the other things they ask for, is a good job. People rarely express this view, and if prompted they rarely have good ideas on how to create jobs. As I have argued before, we may be served better by experts in bubbles than people who spend too much time listening and too little doing.

Defenders of getting out of the bubble typically argue that these companies do listen, they just don’t let on. In part I think that’s true, but I think it’s important to understand why. These systems succeed by hiring experts to get out of the bubble and find out what the public really want. That leaves other experts to design great services away from those misdirections.

Here's one last example to try and convince you.


Women’s football

One of my guilty pleasures is listening to post-match phone-ins on talkSport. Callers want more English players in the Premier League, less obscene wages for players, lower ticket prices, less diving, and more respect for the referee. They wish that the Football Association, The Premier League, UEFA, and FIFA would get out of their bubble and listen to them.

There is a football league in England with all those things. Where two-thirds of the champions’ team are English, where top players earn £20,000 a year, where ticket prices are a tenner, and where players treat each other and the referee with respect.

If we were designing football outside of the bubble we’d design women’s football. Sadly, that’s not what people really want.

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