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.

10 Comments

Kurren
It's true that many (most?) Interaction Designers (or User Experience professionals) misunderstand what they are doing, or what they should instead being doing. As it is true that most designers are not really designers but simply Photoshop (or Illustrator, or add-your-tool-of-choice) operators - that's why we have designers, interaction designers, UX designers, and so on. If designers were designers they would probably understand the rules of design, the needs of the user (reader, viewer, ...), and the limitation/peculiarities of the medium they produce for. Big companies (as Apple and Ikea) understand their users through products releases and users response (hence the 'never buy 1st generation Apple products' - you are basically paying to product-test) all the others go user testing, and is there that (if you happen to have a bad UX professional leading the game) you'll end up designing the user's idea of your product/service. User testing (or research, and so on) should be used to highlight design's flaws and (better) understand users needs and not to just comply and shape the design to what the user says she wants. That's poor design, and it's usually sustained but the lack of vision that makes the fear of not being likeable (thus, not selling) the only strategy. Users expose flaws and facilitate in highlighting missing features or broken patterns, it should be the role of professional to interpret, translate, and render those emotions into a piece of valuable, useful, engaging work.
Yanay Zohar
I think your observation actually applies for more than just the interaction design field. Most people are clueless about many aspects of their lives (like financial decisions), yet it doesn't stop them from having solid opinions about what (they think) is best for them. Any professional's job is to listen, separate noise from signal, experiment, and produce the most suitable solution, even if it appears to conflict with some of the original users' suggestions. Users' voice matters, but you have to put on your expert earphones to produce music out of it.
Chuck Green
I don't understand the desire to create an us-versus-them scenario -- we're ALL users. One of my great advantages as a designer is to come into a project as an uniformed user. It allows me to learn the status of the thinking in a way the experienced insiders can't. It allows me to, potentially, take the thinking to the next step or bring it into an entirely different realm. What changes my status from that of an observer to that of a player? A meeting? Who knows -- there are as many scenarios for developing innovate products as there are innovative products.
Jay Montoni
I completely agree with the article, I have always had a simplified view on all of this. Users can (hopefully) explain to you what they are looking to achieve, but they are never clear on how to achieve it, even when they say otherwise - that's what we do. Any time you take a users feedback to literally your in going down a dark path. However, in my opinion if a user is asking for it then it's too late, you've missed the window, innovation comes when you deliver something preemptively.
@ritchielee
"Don't get out of the boat: absolutely god damn right; not unless you're going all the way" if people are not as you allude: interpreting user views and justifying their design decisions then they're just playing at it and probably haven't really ever got their hands dirty. those responsible are usually all too eager to build rather than ask 'what does this really mean?'
Henry Ford
If I'd asked people what they wanted, they'd have said "faster horses".
Jean-Hugues Bretin
It's also what Satoru Iwata, Nintendo's president, mentionned when he was asked about the Wii development: "the only thing people were asking for was more graphic power)!" that's all! Now we know people were also waiting for something a bit different, it explains Nintendo's success with the Wii.
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Charles
Reading the comments on Skibsted's article, the outcry seems to be that Skibsted and Hansen didn't do a good job explaining themselves, not that many people misunderstood a well-written article. Most of the comments I read were stressing that UCD does NOT mean asking users what they want, something the authors failed to make clear in their own article.
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