Two weeks before the election, I traveled to Maine for a conference and drove through Massachusetts and New Hampshire on my way.
In Silicon Valley, which was mostly Clinton country, I’d seen very few signs or bumper stickers promoting any candidates. But as I drove through the northeast, plenty of Trump signs were displayed on people’s lawns, fences, and car bumpers. I did see a few Clinton signs, but Trump signs dominated the landscape. In fact, as I was driving up Highway 1 to Freeport, Maine, home of LL Bean, I drove past a group of about 18 people waving Trump signs to passersby.
This surprised me. Sitting in my Silicon Valley office, I was pretty insulated from how the rest of the US perceived both candidates. Like a lot of us, we mostly trusted the media and pollsters to guide our knowledge about how the election was evolving.
As I spoke to people in Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire—where, interestingly, Clinton won—I saw more passion from Trump followers. More importantly, when I asked why they were voting for Trump, their anger against the Washington elite was top of mind. As I flew home, for the first time I thought to myself that he had a better chance of winning the election than I could have ever imagined.
Since Trump’s victory, I’ve seen all kinds 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 also 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,” he said on Nov. 9.
Similarly, we need to remind ourselves that Silicon Valley is not the real world. I grew up here, and have seen its amazing growth. But in some ways, our research and the tech media focuses largely on those in the know instead of the real people who use our products.
I am reminded of something I saw at Xerox PARC in the late 1990s—a two-handed mouse. I and many others just did not think this product made sense, but the engineer who created said he thought “people might like it.”
To be fair, globalization means Silicon Valley tech is getting into the hands of people of all generations and income levels. But we still often create products that are too complicated and difficult to use, many of which 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 our products and gain greater insight into what they want and what will work for them. Here at Creative Strategies, we try and do this often, which includes going to college campuses and talking with students directly, or when possible, visiting different cities around the US.
I really think Silicon Valley needs to get beyond its insular way of thinking, and the 2016 polling failures only reinforce that.