On listening

Car design

Henry Ford famously dismissed listening to his customers, saying that if he’d bothered asking them, they’d have asked for faster horses. An early episode of The Simpsons riffed on this idea: Homer was brought into his brother’s car company as a man of the people and asked to design exactly the kind of car he wanted. The car was a flop, and his brother Herb was ruined.

Web design

In contrast, the usability writer Steve Krug is a strong advocate of designers observing the behaviour of their users and listening to what they have to say. In his book Don’t Make Me Think, Krug prescribes regular usability testing sessions as a way to uncover the design problems we can’t see ourselves. These sessions are also an effective way to settle internal disputes about how something should be designed. Once everyone working on a site has seen multiple users struggle to find a “Contact us” button, it’s much easier to agree that it should be fixed. User voice matters.

Student voice

In the old days (so I’m told), schools were authoritarian structures where students did as they were told. These days, we all know that schools are run by namby-pamby, cardigan-wearing lefties who treat their students like customers filling in a feedback form at Fortnum and Mason.

Student voice has certainly been a controversial movement. The more traditionally-minded teachers argue that it muddies the waters of where authority lies in a school. Of course, in a school infused with a culture of student voice, staff are still setting the rules and making decisions. But they are dealing with a delicate dilemma: if they respond directly to a student request, they necessarily cede some of their authority to the students; if they routinely ignore these requests, the students feel that the process is a sham.


These are all essentially political issues. They raise questions of power, who wields it, and how far authority figures should respond to the views of the many.

Jeremy Corbyn has putting listening to the masses back on the agenda recently, and it’s been interesting to see what people have to say about it.

Here’s Frankie Boyle in the Guardian this week:

“The new Labour leader insisted, ‘Leadership is about listening.’ If leadership is about listening, the great political speeches would have been a little different. Churchill saying, ‘Can you tell me what you’d like to do on the beaches?’ Or Martin Luther King, surrounded by civil right activists at the Lincoln Memorial: ‘Did everyone hear that? He said a dog came into his bedroom but it had the head of his dead mother … it sang the Camptown Races and then all his teeth fell out. That’s a great one. OK, hands up who’s got another dream?’”

Boyle’s article made me laugh, but there’s a profound point in that quote. If authority figures take the listening process too far, they do start to look weak and unimaginative. But if they don’t listen enough, they fall out of touch with the reality of the people they govern, teach, or make websites for.

As an authority in one of these areas, we might choose to listen to our users and students describing the problems they experience, but choose to ignore their opinions about how things should be done differently. So as a web designer, we would listen to a user who says the “Contact us” button is hard to find, but ignore their suggestion that it should therefore be made bright pink with a yellow trim. As a teacher, we’d listen to a student council complaining that the lunch queues are too long, but we’d close our ears when the students start to say what we should do about it.

This all seems a little unwise. Good ideas can come from unexpected places, and in schools, we actively want to cultivate students coming up with good ideas. How better to do that that to take some of their good ideas on board. The real problem – and I bet this is one Jeremy Corbyn is busy working on – is how we deal with bad ideas. Especially, how we deal with large groups of people who are insisting on a bad idea. When a ‘listening’ authority figure repeatedly rejects popular ideas, a perception easily grows that they’re not listening at all.

Maybe the most interesting aspect of this issue is how far we regard self-doubt as a positive quality in an authority figure. Looking at the different fields in which I’ve worked, there’s a difference between how open you can be about your self-doubt. Teachers who convey self-doubt about their lesson-planning or disciplinary decisions come across as weak and indecisive. Yet as a teacher, I remember being privately full of self-doubt. I’d be driving home and thinking about earlier that day. Did that incident really merit a detention, or was it just harmless fun? Even in class, I’d sometimes set a task, and then the next minute start thinking “This was a terrible idea”. Teachers are encouraged to be reflective, but it’s a process that needs to be hidden from the students. You need to put it behind a mask that says “I know exactly what I’m doing, all the time”.

Now that I work more with the tech side of things, I find self-doubt can be worn much more openly. Maybe it’s because everything running on a computer has to be tested before you know that it works. Phrases like “You are not the user” exist to create self-doubt about matters such as what your users want a tool for, or how they use a browser.

The figure looming over all of this is Steve Jobs. As a modern day Henry Ford, Jobs seemed to be blessed with an ability to know what people want better than they knew themselves. Apple are not renowned for being listeners, or for putting power in the hands of their users. Some people hate them for having this attitude, but it’s clearly worked out pretty well for them.

Someone said to me once, “The problem is, Steve Jobs is an exception. The rest of us do well to listen to what people think”. Maybe so.

5 thoughts on “On listening

  1. Another excellent post. The trouble is, I always find myself reading your posts at work when I have to immediately turn my attention to something else when what I really want to do is give over a substantial amount of time to thinking about all the issues raised. A very personal grumble – do we have to give Frankie Boyle even more publicity? It irks me that he has become a darling of the Left. I can’t open the Guardian these days without seeing another article by him. Ugh.

  2. thought provoking article! To throw in my own £2: [strong opinions, weakly held… ;)]
    I think legitimacy of leadership is a helpful concept to add into your mix too… when there is true legitimacy a leader can lead in whatever style they /are/ because they are genuinely supported by those they lead.
    When legitimacy is lacking (as is usually the case, perhaps because most leaders are not chosen by a group who cooperatively recognise their own need of a leader, but are installed by higher authorities to manage/placate a ‘herd’, in order to get something out of them, if only their ongoing docility, and almost never for the unadulterated benefit of the ‘herd’; or because they let leadership get to their head and they lose their legitimacy that way) then the leader must engage in all sorts of interesting systems and tricks to secure the cooperation of those they lead /and/ to please those above them… Even when the leadership is done with the best of intentions (as is usually the case with teachers), this is still the case I feel.
    However, installed leaders can win their legitimacy, and once that is done, their freedom of leadership style is glorious!
    Thinking back to my pupil days, I think the way my favourite teachers achieved this was by generating and facilitating genuine human connection, care and cooperation within the constraints of the school situation. (And usually /not/ by identifying with and trying to justify the (immediately immovable) structural reality/violence of the school system institution… some would explicitly acknowledge that they disagreed with it, others probably tacitly agreed with it but didn’t fall in the trap of trying to justify it to us, even implicitly…)
    Of course, where there is a community of leaders and communities of led, the prevailing cultures (cultures of leadership, cultures of being led) can create strong currents that are generally tricky to swim against. At this point, the leadership tricks and systems perhaps become survival and learning mechanisms, perhaps rungs on the ladder towards truly free leadership?
    Finally, intentional dialogue between leaders to shift the prevailing leadership culture towards a leadership-community choice (rather than drifting, incidental inheritance, or imposition from above) becomes an important tool in enabling and developing ones own preferred modes of leadership with ones own led.

    1. Thanks Crispin – I agree that legitimacy is a useful concept to add here.

      Re. installed leaders: one thing you hear a lot as a teacher is that you have to earn respect from the students, ie. it doesn’t tend to be the default position. A large part of earning respect is definitely down to your intentions and your reason for being there. Everyone says if you stay in a particular school for a while, your status goes up in accordance with the amount of time you’ve spent there. Sticking around is a sign of being committed and maybe having better intentions than someone who leaves after a year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s