Matt LeMay is a Senior Product Manager at Songza and former Head of Consumer Product at Bitly. He teaches regularly at General Assembly on topics related to product management, big data, and APIs. In this post, Matt describes how you can better understand the digital world, even if you don’t consider yourself technically savvy.
As a product manager, I spend a lot of time trying to understand what people want. The technical folks I work with are never shy to give me their opinions about what we should build, how we should build it, and why. But the feedback that truly makes or breaks a product often comes direct from its users; from the people who are invested not in how a product is made but rather in what it is (and if) it works.
It’s funny, then, that the people whose observations are most important to me are often those who seem to be the most convinced that their opinions are not sophisticated enough to be valuable. In fact, some of the most important and insightful observations I’ve heard have been prefaced with some variation of the following:
“You’re going to think this is really stupid, but….”
“I’m sure there’s a reason you did things this way, but…”
“I just don’t have a mind for anything technical, but…”
If you use technology in your daily life (and, if you’re reading this, odds are you do), then your observations about technology are valuable. In fact, you probably understand much more about technology than you give yourself credit for. The line between understanding how the digital world works for you and how the digital world works in general is shorter than you think.
Here are some steps you can take right now to begin harnessing and expanding your own understanding of the digital world:
1. Be Actively Curious
The time is well past for anybody to claim that the digital world is “not my problem.” But whether or not you see the digital world as a “problem” at all is entirely up to you. The world is changing faster than we can fathom, and there is absolutely nothing stopping anyone from approaching this change with openness and curiosity. If you’re only approaching digital in a reactive way, you’ll always be several steps behind. Be actively curious in exploring what digital technology is, how it works, and how it’s made.
2. Think Through The Decisions You Make as a Digital Citizen
Do you use Microsoft Word or Google Docs? Do you spend more time on Twitter than on Facebook? These decisions matter, and the more attention you pay to them, the better you can begin to understand your own position as a user of technology. You are making decisions every day, and understanding how and why you’re making these decisions will help you understand the kind of thinking that goes into constructing the digital world.
3. Don’t Be Afraid of Sounding “Stupid”
One of the best ways to learn about the digital world is to ask people who are more knowledgeable and experienced than you are. This can be a nerve-wracking and difficult thing to accept, especially people in senior positions, who may feel undermined or exposed by revealing their own lack of expertise. But asking a question you genuinely want answered is far less stupid than pretending you already know the answer. Be honest about what you know and what you don’t know, and you’ll find that tech-savvy folks are happy to help you.
4. Don’t Get Stuck
If you’re working with a digital product or platform that seems frustrating to you, don’t assume that it’s your fault. People who work in the digital world spend all day being frustrated with technology, and though we may grumble about it, we appreciate it when users do the same. If something seems off to you, ask around. Reach out to people who use that product, or reach out to the product’s support team via email or Twitter. Don’t give up!
5. Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone
One of the great things about modern technology is that it’s very hard to really break anything. You’re much more likely to mess up your smartphone dropping it on the sidewalk than tinkering with its settings. Major websites are designed to withstand organized attacks from the world’s most brilliant cybercriminals. If you’ve fallen into the habit of asking someone who’s “more technical” than you to help with something, set aside some time to try to solve the problem yourself. The sooner you get out of your comfort zone, the sooner your digital expertise will expand.
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