What Lessons can the Tech World Learn from 2016 Pollster Failings?

Two weeks before the election, I traveled to Maine to be at a conference. I picked up a car in Boston and drove through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Coming from California which is was mostly “Clinton country”, I had seen very few signs or bumper stickers promoting any candidates, at least here in Silicon Valley.

But as I drove through these areas of the US, I found all types of Trump signs on people’s lawns, fences, and bumper stickers on cars. I did see a few Clinton signs but Trump signs were the dominant ones displayed in the cities I drove through. In fact, as I was driving up HWY 1 to Freeport, Maine, home of LL Bean, I drove past a group of about 18 people with signs waving and promoting Trump.

This surprised me. Sitting in my Silicon Valley office, I was pretty insulated from how the rest of the US was perceiving both of these candidates and, like a lot of people, mostly trusting the media and the polls to guide our knowledge about how this election was evolving.

As I spoke to people in these three states which, interestingly enough, voted mostly for Clinton, I saw more passion in the followers of Trump than I did for Clinton. More importantly, when I asked why they were voting for Trump, their anger against the Washington elite and the political landscape they felt did not represent them anymore was at the top of their mind. As I flew home from this trip, I reflected on the comments of the Trump supporters and, for the first time, I thought he had a better chance of winning the election than I thought he would.

Now that Trump has won the presidency, I am seeing all kind of media reports on why he won and how in the world the pollsters got this so wrong. While there have been a lot of explanations, one key observation, from Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, should be a warning for Silicon Valley and their view that the world starts and ends with them.

Mr. Baquet praised his political team and other Times journalists for “agility and creativity,” citing articles about Mr. Trump’s taxes and Mrs. Clinton’s record in Libya. But in an interview in his office, he said, “If I have a mea culpa for journalists and journalism, it’s that we’ve got to do a much better job of being on the road, out in the country, talking to different kinds of people than the people we talk to — especially if you happen to be a New York-based news organization — and remind ourselves that New York is not the real world.”

I believe a similar parallel exists here in Silicon Valley. To paraphrase Mr. Baquet’s comment, “we need to remind ourselves that Silicon Valley is not the real world.”

I grew up in Silicon Valley and have seen its amazing growth. The technology that has come out of it has changed the world. But in some ways, we believe the world revolves around us and so much of our research and tech media is often just focused on those in the know instead of the real people who use the products.

I am reminded of something I learned early in my career when I often encountered a technology product that, to me, did not seem like a viable one. One that comes to mind is something I was shown at Xerox PARC in the late 1990s. Basically, it was a two-handed mouse for use as part of a new form of a user interface for computers. I, and many others, just could not see how this product made sense. But, when I asked the engineer who created it, his answer was, “because I could and I thought people might like it.”

To be fair, because of the globalization of tech, our technology is getting into the hands of people of all generations and income levels but we still often create products that are still too complicated and difficult to use and many of those fall by the wayside.

Taking a hint from the New York Times editor, as tech researchers and marketing professionals, we need to get out more and really talk to the people who use the products and gain greater insight on what they want and what will work for them. Here at Creative Strategies we try and do this often, including going to college campuses and talking with students directly or, when possible, visiting different cities around the US and talking to non-techies about their interest in technology and trying to dig deeper into their interests and demands.

I really think Silicon Valley needs to get beyond its insular way of thinking and start really listening to the people who will use what we create if we want to continue to see technology impact the world as we envision it can in the future. In our case, these polling failures have reinforced that we need to do more research in the real world most people live in and I hope more people in tech marketing do so as well.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

4 thoughts on “What Lessons can the Tech World Learn from 2016 Pollster Failings?”

  1. Spot on & not so jolly good…clearly the desire for fundamental change got underestimated…yet we fail to recognize that the shooting ourselves in both feet will not be helpful & possibly devastating…things look to implode already, prior to Trump’s assumption of office…people voted out of frustration & not information

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