In 2015 I had a short-term software development role, working on a large creative product that was already used all over the world. In a corner away from the development team was a small collection of desks housing the support team. Their job was responding to e-mails and answering the phone all day to real customers struggling to use the current software. Our job was to make this software work effortlessly for those exact customers.
The developers and designers know how to make something do what it’s supposed to do. In this day and age we also know how most simillar products work and how to keep things “simple”. The problem is we want everyone to see the cool little features we’ve coded or designed. In doing so, we often confuse our users because we don’t know how real people are going to interpret a new feature, we just assume it will make sense. This is why every developer and product designer needs to work a support role, dealing with real-world users.
Listening to users’ problems, finding out how they got into their current situation and what they were trying to do can really open your eyes to who you’re creating for. You don’t have to become a UX expert, but knowing that users wont stick to your route of using a feature is the first step to creating a more universally understandable product. It can be as simple as the “checkbox function” not making sense, or it could be deeper issues like users trying to take messy routes that clog up your code – people will do whatever they like and you need it all to work how they want it to work.
Enter Jon Air. I haven’t a clue if the idea was his own, but he enforced this rule in the workplace (much to the dismay of some employees): you will take a forced 3-month downtime from production and work solely as a member of the support team. One at a time, the team were turned into members of the support team and were dealing with real-world users that were tearing their work apart and using it in all kinds of unforseeable ways.
I was not a part of this program, but I strongly believe in it. My interest for UX has grown exponentially over recent years and I believe everyone would create higher quality products if they were to work in a full-time support role. Do it when you get out of university and desperately need a job, then explain in future interviews that you have this knowledge. Explain what you’ve learned that regular developers/designers lack. You’ll be far more useful when it comes to planning and producing products and features than the candidates that have been glued to their screen churning out “stuff that does something” for their entire career. You know how to make useable, useful experiences.