the bullet hole misconception

kevin drum writes:

back during world war 2, the raf lost a lot of planes to german anti-aircraft fire. so they decided to armor them up. but where to put the armor? the obvious answer was to look at planes that returned from missions, count up all the bullet holes in various places, and then put extra armor in the areas that attracted the most fire.

obvious but wrong. as hungarian-born mathematician abraham wald explained at the time, if a plane makes it back safely even though it has, say, a bunch of bullet holes in its wings, it means that bullet holes in the wings aren't very dangerous. what you really want to do is armor up the areas that, on average, don't have any bullet holes. why? because planes with bullet holes in those places never made it back. that's why you don't see any bullet holes there on the ones that do return.

if we just would gather all the negative feedback about our product and use it for improvement, our product will be one gazillion times better, right? no. okay, what if we just would ask our users what they hate most about our product, then...? no. then how about letting our users design and improve...? no, stop it.

don't get me wrong, user feedback is extremely important. but in most cases users don't know what they want. and even if they would know what they want, it is likely that they are not able to communicate their wishes effectively. more importantly however, the crux here is that most people won't give you any feedback and just silently walk away from your product. these are the planes that never made it back from their missions.

always do combine user feedback with user and usage analysis, don't ever act exclusively based on user feedback. not listening to your users might put you up for failure, but following every user request like a headless chicken is a perfect recipe for certain failure.

i like how kathy sierra puts it in featuritis vs. the happy user peak, which by the way is an excellent article:

give users what they actually want, not what they say they want kathy sierra

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