People are not rational

Gliding on snow

Whether you are building enterprise software or electric scooters, you’re building for and selling to people. Your user is not a company, or a persona, or a job title – they are humans with problems. They are in search of a solution.

As a new venture builder, your job is to get out there and learn enough about those problems. Your goal is to create a product so valuable, any rational person would be crazy not to purchase it.

Easy, right?

It would be, if it weren’t for one fundamental truth:

People are not rational.

If we were, we wouldn’t mess up so often.

Most of us know what’s right for ourselves – but we rarely do those things consistently. We know eating right matters. Without getting into the specifics of what “eating right” means, there are some basic truths like eating more vegetables, eating less processed foods and not consuming orders of magnitude more calories than we need, that are pretty darn basic.

And yet humans generally struggle with these things. We go on crazy diets, or occasionally fast. We drink our meals. We binge, feel crappy, tell ourselves we’ll be more vigilant next time, last two days and the cycle continues. We’re not stupid, we’re irrational.

Question: Would you like to be healthier?

The only answer that 99.9% of people will give, regardless of how healthy they already are (or think they are) is yes. Emphatically so.

We all know it’s important to be healthy because we don’t want to die young sitting in a Lazy Boy choking on tacos and ice cream. If you go out on the street and ask 10 people if they want to be healthier, they’ll say yes. Ask 100 and they’ll say the same thing. They know it’s the right answer.

That’s the rational part of them. The part that recognizes the entrenched societal goal of being healthier, where not aspiring to such a goal would be seen as a failure in our cultural context. The part that pretty much knows what you want them to say—knows the “right” answer—and gives it to you.

Question: What do you do to be healthy?

If you ask this question of people they’ll almost always say the same thing: eat right and exercise. Why? Because they know this is the right thing to do (and say.) They might answer a bit awkwardly, perhaps admitting to a recent “off the wagon” moment of eating, drinking or smoking too much. Maybe they’ll work to justify their answer a bit by explaining that they’ve been really busy and haven’t gone to the gym in the last few days, but they do go, and they know it matters.

Here’s the thing: people lie.

They don’t do it intentionally, or to be mean. Most of the time, they are subconsciously suppressing behaviours that don’t fit into their narrative of themselves. People are generally very good at projecting their “best selves” when you approach them with direct questions. They intuit very quickly what they think you’re looking for and provide you with a rational response.

There are absolutely ways of getting better at interviewing people, and I encourage you to learn these best practices. But you’ll always be challenged by the fact that people lie. They’ll attempt to give you rational answers when the fundamental crux of most issues is that people are irrational.

If we were perfectly rational we’d eat right, exercise more, plan our financial futures, have a will, and do a host of other “obvious” things that would make our lives better.

Note: I’m in no way saying that you should not interview people while doing early validation work on a new idea. You 100% should. You need to get very good at it to avoid obvious pitfalls and get to meaningful insights. You should always be speaking with users. You can’t learn why people do what they do without engaging them in direct dialogue.

What this looks like

Let me tell you a quick story. A couple years ago while working with AB InBev on their ZxLerator program (an internal accelerator for building new ventures), a team went out to interview people about their non-alcoholic drinking habits. They approached people in the park (and other locations) and struck up conversations.

One lady told the team that she never drinks sugary beverages such as sodas because she knows how bad they are for you. Lo and behold in her purse, fully visible to the interviewees, was a 500ML bottle of Coke (not even Diet Coke!). Maybe some random stranger put that bottle in her purse, or perhaps it was her “once a year indulgence,” but both of those scenarios seem unlikely. She was flat out “lying” to their faces.

So, people lie. Not all the time, and not to be malicious, but it’s going to happen. You still need to go out and interview them (I won’t let you off the hook!) but you have to remember just how irrational people are. We make decisions for all sorts of social and emotional reasons that are perfectly legitimate and important to us, but not necessarily rational or functional in nature. And if you can get into the “whys” behind people’s irrational behaviours, you just might have a problem worth solving.

Say vs. Do

One of the best ways I’ve found to break through people’s attempt to be rational-in-the-moment is through the use of stimulus and prototypes. When you give people something to do, lying becomes harder. Give them an object to interact with and let them talk at the same time—suddenly they’re speaking more honestly and freely. It’s harder to lie when you’re given something to do, because actions speak louder than words.

Stimulus and prototypes have a way of disarming people and increasing their curiosity. They might approach you more readily, or be more willing to engage in an interview (see: you’re still talking to people!) with something to interact with at the same time.

Almost anything can be a form of stimulus or prototype, including concept statementslanding pagespaper prototypes, and moodboards.

My suggestion is to start by interviewing people without anything for them to do. Just get them talking and practice your interview structure. Get comfortable talking to people. Listen for the nuggets of truth and undercover the early signs of insights. Then go ahead and put together some scrappy stimulus or prototypes and get back out there.

Another way of bridging the gap between “say and do” is to use observation. Watch people do stuff. There are various techniques for doing so, such as P.O.E.M.S, which can help you get better at structuring your observation and capturing the details.

People have a harder time lying when they’re doing something, especially if they don’t know you’re watching (I recognize how creepy that might sound, but stick with me.) People’s true behaviour, their irrationalities that emerge and drive what they’re doing, will become much clearer through observation.

You can also videotape people going about their business and then have them watch their behaviours and interview them as they’re watching. It’s a good way to get past people “lying” about what they do and force them to confront some of their non-conscious behaviours.

Solve Problems that Matter

At the end of the day, our goal is to solve problems that matter to people. Find the pain—the real pain beyond just a functional need—and deliver solutions that genuinely help. To do that, we have to go past the obvious. Past the attempts at being rational. Past the “we know what we should be doing so we’ll tell you that” answers you might get when speaking with people.

We have to get to the truth of people – which is that they’re irrational.

Ben Yoskovitz is a Founding Partner and Chief Product Officer at Highline BETA, a venture capital and startup co-creation company