A recent article by Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker magazine examines the psychology of commuters (those who travel long distances to work each day). Commuting is a revealing example of how:
- People are not always aware of the problems they face in their day-to-day lives.
- People are sometimes unable to judge rationally how valuable it is to solve the problems they face.
A commute is a distillation of a life’s main ingredients, a product of fundamental values and choices. And time is the vital currency: how much of it you spend—and how you spend it—reveals a great deal about how much you think it is worth.The root of a product manager's responsibilities is to understand problems in the marketplace. The behavior of commuters shows that researching these problems is not always straightfoward, however. For example:
“Drive until you qualify” is a phrase that real-estate agents use to describe a central tenet of the commuting life: you travel away from the workplace until you reach an exit where you can afford to buy a house that meets your standards. The size of the wallet determines that of the mortgage, and therefore the length of the commute.Yet according to Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist:
There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.Thus:
The commuting paradox reflects the notion that many people, who are supposedly rational (according to classical economic theory, at least), commute even though it makes them miserable. They are not, in the final accounting, adequately compensated.Interestingly:
Road-building doesn’t much help. Atlanta is a showcase for a phenomenon called “induced traffic”: the more highway lanes you build, the more traffic you get. People find it agreeable to move farther away, and, as others join them, they find it less agreeable (or affordable), and so they move farther still. The lanes fill up.The article is chock full of profiles of actual commuters and accounts of actual commute experiences. If your product manager is not generating this sort of information, he is not likely to thoroughly understand his market. The article further illustrates the complexity of interpreting quantitative and qualitative information and understanding market problems.