You can't change the game if you don't understand the players

That hot post on the Fast Company Design blog, User-Led Innovation Can't Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea, is both wonderfully true and dangerously wrong. I want to both make it required reading for all my clients, and also bury it underground where it will never again see the light of day.

It is deeply and importantly true that you should not build what your users ask for (or put another way, you should not ask your users what to build). At Cooper we call that “automating the misery.” One commenter on the original post reminds us of the Henry Ford quote:

“If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have said 'a faster horse.'“

If Ford had listened to his users, he would have bred faster horses and made better saddles, and he wouldn’t have put out a game-changing product. Many of our clients come to us with a history of producing bad user interfaces, and they can’t understand why when they have included every popular feature request from their users.

The reason for this is very simple: users are not designers or visionaries. We should no sooner ask them to design a product than we would ask them to write the code.

Where this article gets it very, very wrong is in the implication that being user-centered, talking to users, or understanding them at a deep level is not important or even antithetical to creating a game-changing product. Apple and Ikea are held up as the prime example of this. But both of these companies make products for consumers. Their target market is not too dissimilar from the designers themselves. They can get away with not talking to users because they already understand them at a deep level.

But what if you’re designing a product for a user very different from yourself? What if your user is a heart surgeon? An architect? An investment banker? In these situations designers can’t draw on their own personal experience for inspiration, and shouldn’t. (Though honestly it might be funny to see Apple’s take on a heart surgery interface.) As I talked about in my blog post on expertise, you can’t use your brain to design for a very different brain.

Users can only tell you what they think they want to achieve their goals. It’s our job to listen to what they say, detangle it, and design something that they love. To be in a position to do what you do well—design visionary products—for someone not like yourself, you have to understand your users. Once you truly understand your users’ goals, only then can you create game-changing products to help them achieve those goals.