If users could lead innovation, they wouldn't be users

The recent post on Co.Design by Jens Skibsted and Rasmus Hansen, “User-Led Innovation Can't Create Breakthroughs,” echoes something I have said many times, and I agree with their conclusions.

The article has caused a furor in the interaction design community mostly because it has been misunderstood. That is less surprising when you realize many interaction design practitioners misunderstand their own practice.

Many professional interaction designers and other practitioners interpret the phrase “user-centered design” to mean they should ask the user what to make. This is not what the phrase means, and misconstruing it that way can lead to tremendous misdirection and waste. This is the error that Skibsted and Hansen highlight.

There is a large and growing body of evidence that users don’t know what they want, don’t know what the medium is capable of delivering, and are not quite incapable of imagining something new, useful, desirable, or innovative. What’s more, there is ample evidence that the users are entirely ignorant of their inabilities, yet will happily give their flawed answers with unequivocal emphasis.

Rather, it is the job of the integrated development team or, if in a siloed world, the interaction designer, to answer the question of what to make. Of course, the designer should avail him or herself of all of the intelligence available, which will naturally include observations and interviews of the user. But the results of those interviews is to the design solution as grapes are to wine: raw materials that must be transformed by expertise into a palatable product. The apparent conflict of interviewing users yet not following their suggestions is confusing to many undertrained practitioners, and their resultant miscues are what the authors rail against, as well they should.

I have addressed the dilemma of asking the users in both of my books, in presentations, and in various posts over the years. One of the most accessible is a brief and impromptu interview that was recorded several years ago. I had just delivered a talk at the Patterns and Practices conference in Seattle, when @scobleizer (Robert Scoble) poked his camcorder in my face and asked me several questions. The resulting mini-interview has been widely viewed on the Internet. What I said to Robert was very similar to the assertions by Skibsted and Hansen.

The Fast Company article has generated a furor on the interaction designer chat boards because the wording of the article is broad enough to be interpreted as a slam to the usefulness of all interaction design. I certainly disagree with that interpretation, but practitioners bring this criticism on themselves by their own less than rigorous practice.

Ikea and Apple may not ask their users what they want, but they sure work diligently to understand what their users want. There is a world of difference between the two.