You can’t create successful products if you don’t leave your desk

For the past 15 years I’ve been anchored at a desk creating everything from marketing material to user experiences for various applications and software. Now more than ever, people can work from their desk and not have to interact with others in a physical capacity. This can certainly be great for productivity, but also comes with challenges.

For designers, the problem with sitting siloed off from the world is the omission of interaction with users or potential users—you’re not getting the full picture of the needs and desires of people who you’re trying to solve problems for.

Michelle, a happiness engineer, sits down with a photographer to discuss features of his website

Michelle, a writer on our editorial team, sits down with a photographer to discuss features of his website. Photo by

Interacting with users and potential users in person is an important aspect of research and empathy

I know what you’re thinking—yes I’ve heard of this thing called the internet that connects billions of people with things like social media, email, and video. However, interacting with your users and potential users in the digital realm is quite different than face-to-face.   

Personally, I think in-person contact is faster and more efficient—digital contact can lead to loss of context and meaning depending on the scenario and the detail of the questions asked and the answers given. Open conversation with individuals or groups in the physical world lead to the creation of a larger data collection funnel. With the addition of body language and verbal cues we can pick up on, in conjunction with each other, we’re able to gather more accurate data points and determine how a user really feels.

Sam, an engineer, speaks with a customer

Sam, an engineer, speaks with a customer. Photo by

Digital data collection doesn’t have all the answers

We can acquire serious value from analyzing usage data online. We’re able to see where a user navigates within a product, where they don’t, what actions they perform, and what actions they don’t perform. Collecting and monitoring funnel data, analytics, and heat mapping software is all well and good for discovering some problems which we can then attempt to create solutions for—but digital data collection isn’t an all encompassing solution to solving problems.

Dennis, an engineer, listens to a photographer as he talks about his current website platform

Dennis, an engineer, listens to a photographer as he talks about his current website platform.

Distraction dilutes your data accuracy

It’s also important to keep in mind that humans attempt to do an awful lot of things at once in the digital sphere. Checking email, browsing websites, tweeting, and more—all seconds apart from each other. A user may be attempting to accomplish a task with your product and then becomes distracted by a push notification and return minutes or hours later… or they might not return at all. If you’re monitoring data funnels you’ve created for various UX flows, how do you interpret it properly? We can’t see if a user was confused by something we designed (or didn’t design) or if their sibling called them and they simply forgot to continue through the flow.

By speaking with a user about their experience and watching folks go through flows during a one on one in person, we’re able to gather more accurate intel since we have their full attention.

David, a happiness engineer, talks about the features and benefits of to a potential customer interested in starting a website

David, a happiness engineer, explains the features and value of to a potential customer interested in starting a website

Your users will show you problems you didn’t even know you had, IRL.

Speaking with humans in real life (IRL) can actually reveal a lot more information, faster. Want to benchmark competition, discover UX flow issues within your own software, and discover a problem you didn’t even know your product or marketing has? Have an agile conversation in person.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend PhotoPlus Expo (PPE), an extremely large conference with over 20,000 people in New York City dedicated to the craft of photography. While representing Automattic at PPE, we had two physical outlets to connect with folks—a very large trade show booth in the expo arena to serve the purpose of marketing, Jetpack, and Woo Commerce, and a smaller table for speaking with folks on a more personal level. We provided free website reviews for folks, where we sat down and took a look at their websites.

Megan, our event manager, explains to a conference goer.

Megan, our event manager, explains what is, to a conference goer.

As a designer, you’re unable to see your products like your potential user base does

Keeping in mind that the demographic at this conference was primarily serious amateur photographers and professional photographers, I assembled a list of questions for people sitting down with me. Out of the several dozen folks I had a consultation with at our table, everyone had at least one website. However, website platforms varied greatly. Some folks were on, some had a self-hosted WordPress install on different hosts, and many folks had other proprietary platforms like Squarespace, Wix, and SmugMug.

Some of the questions I asked to begin the conversation were:

  • What do you want a website for and what are your major goals?
  • Are you selling services, products, prints, or something else?
  • How do you want potential customers to see you as a photographer?
  • Who is your major demographic and target audience?

These questions then set the tone for the discovery session between us where I learned about these folks, and they even learned about the power of having a proper website.

As a designer, you can test flows over and over to find weak points, but once you become familiar with a particular process or flow—especially if you designed it—you’re unable to see it like the user does. You need fresh eyes, and conducting in-person user interviews is a great way to find fresh eyes.

Depending on the individual I worked with, many were more than fine with walking me through the UX flows of their content management system on their sites, whether it was Wix, Squarespace, etc. Conversely, I showed them how to accomplish similar tasks on WordPress or By doing this exercise, I was able to acquire information on several things:

  • Pain points for understanding meta-level concepts for web sites in general, such as:
    • What’s the difference between a blog and a website?
    • What are posts and what are pages?
    • What are categories and taxonomies?
  • Pain points for navigating UX flows that prohibit or slow the user from accomplishing what they need or want on both our platform or other platform
  • Met or missed expectations of our products from the user when trying to accomplish tasks
  • Are we providing what this specific demographic of photographers need?
  • Are we marketing properly to this specific demographic? Do our marketing materials set the proper expectations of our products?
  • Discovery of features. Do your products present the user with an environment where it’s easy to discover new features and create more value

Ultimately, by talking with folks and watching them use both our products and other platforms, we’re able to intake a plethora of information that can ultimately lead us to design a more useful user experience and to market said experience in a more clear and concise manner. Coupled with the data that we collect digitally, we can form a more holistic vision of the problems we need to remedy.

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