Article: What people say they need is not what they actually need, by Alex Gilev

I got a survey from a charity a few years ago that contained a question that was so odd, it struck me as a great illustration of how we sometimes go about things completely the wrong way. It asked me:

“Would you buy our Christmas cards?”

Choose: Yes / No

This survey was sent out during the summer, months before anyone is thinking about Christmas cards.  It didn’t contain any of the basic information I would need before deciding if I would buy their Christmas cards – i.e, do they have nice illustrations, are they good quality, what’s the price point, where do I have to go to buy them.  Just that one, bald, yes / no question.

Any information that the charity gathered through that question is worse than useless: because people don’t know if they’d buy something until they see it in front of them. They might think they know, and that is the key thing to understand – we are incredibly bad at predicting our own behaviour and the decisions that we will make in the future.

This article from Alex Gilev of goes into detail about why this is, the psychological research behind it, and shares an example of a catastrophically expensive decision based on user feedback that was foolishly taken at face value. This is an article to bookmark and reference many times.

There are a lot of real-world applications of this knowledge for digital non-profits, not just in developing major new campaigns or launching new products.  Think about all the places you ask your supporters and website visitors to predict what they’ll do in the future.

For example, when you’re inviting people to subscribe to your mailing list, do you ask them to indicate what they’ll be interested in hearing about, and then forever segment them along those lines?  If they’re just becoming interested in your cause, how do they know for sure that they’ll only ever be interested in volunteering and never in campaigning?

I wonder if that charity that asked me about Christmas cards ended up investing in cards based on the answers they got to that very flawed question. The frustrating thing is that they could have got better information if they’d framed the questions in a different way, for example:

  • Do you usually buy Christmas cards each year? (Ask about past behaviour, not future)
  • When buying charity cards in the past, what has mattered most to you? Rank: the cause, the price, the design, the size of pack, etc.
  • Open question: tell us a bit about how you feel about charity Christmas cards

Then at least, they would have some insights that are a bit useful. They might know if enough of their supporters were habitual Christmas card purchasers to make it worth their while to print cards. They’d have a little bit of guidance on whether these people cared more about the price, the design or the cause the cards represented. However, as Alex Gilev says in the article, these are useful to hear, but you can’t take them to the bank.

I’ll leave you with these insights from his article:

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