User Inspired Design

There seems to be a common misunderstanding of user research and user-centered design. Too many people believe that user-centered design involves asking users what they want and then building exactly what they asked for. This is far from the truth. Most of the time users are poor at expressing what they really want. They may be able to tell you what they don’t like about their current situation, but users are typically not skilled at envisioning the future. Users will never make all of the myriad decisions that go into developing a product or service. The hard work of building the future is your job!

Designing a product or service is also not just about users and stakeholders. There are technical and business factors to consider as well. These have to be balanced with users’ needs and desires. User-centered thinking is derived from the idea that if you can satisfy and delight the users of your products, then the business rewards will automatically follow. The situation is, in reality, more complex. Blindly following user desires can lead to unsustainable business models. There is also the issue of which users to target. Often the business or technical landscape helps you figure out who your users should be.

Recently, a couple respected academics have argued that user-centered design processes are not capable of producing radical innovation. I believe that this stems from this misunderstanding of the role of users, stakeholders, and research in the design process. In his talk at the Big Rethink conference, Roberto Verganti argued that user-centered designs are capable of only incremental change; radical innovation needs to come either from new technology or designers fundamentally changing the meaning of an object. Don Norman, a godfather of the modern design movement, argues that new technologies are solely responsible for revolutionary innovation.

I agree with both authors that technology plays a massive role in radical innovation–it makes things possible that were not before. But, when shaping a product, the knowledge of users cannot be dismissed completely. In both articles, the authors cite examples of products they consider successful, but they are products that have benefited from some understanding of consumers’ desires or needs. Verganti cites the Wii as a product that was not developed with focus groups. That might be true, but it was informed by Nintendo’s understanding that there existed customers for whom hardcore gaming platforms like the Xbox and Playstation were not desirable.

Norman cites the phonograph as an invention that only much later found a need.

Edison launched his first phonograph company within months of his invention: he never questioned the need. He had invented the paperless office, he announced, and launched his product. The notion that the phonograph was better suited for playing back pre-recorded music came much later, and from Emile Berliner, a competitor (whose company morphed into RCA Victor and succeeded whereas Edison’s several attempts all failed). Technology first: needs last.

I would argue that if it weren’t for Berliner’s insight into customers’ desire for music in the home, Norman would not be citing the phonograph in his article. It would be like the office videophone—a failed invention that was more reflective of what was possible than desirable.

In summary, design is not about following users’ every wish or getting them to design your products or services for you. One cannot study users and ignore business and technology. Authors who present user-centered design as such are presenting a straw man, unreflective of praxis. Perhaps “user-centered design” as a term is misleading. A clear understanding of users provides excellent fuel for the design process, but it will not provide all the answers. Maybe the term “user-inspired design” is closer to what we actually do.

I’d venture to guess that the level at which users drive the product varies based on how revolutionary that product actually is.

A revolutionary product, like the first microwave oven, will require more vision from its designers than an incremental innovation, like the 1000th microwave oven. Nowadays, users with experience operating microwave ovens can say what they like and don’t like about the one they already own. As the first microwave was being developed, users who had only ever cooked on a stove or in an oven would have a hard time providing input on the interface of a machine that magically heats food in seconds. Nonetheless, even at the extremes, knowledge about users is important. Understanding how people clean their existing appliances, for instance, would be helpful to the design of the first microwave, and some level of designer vision is needed when designing the 1000th.

Design is a mixture of business, technology, research, and vision. Research is much more than simply asking users and stakeholders what they want. As a lover of design and a user researcher, I know that the products that I find impressive aren’t the ones that give users what they say they want—it’s the ones that give users what they didn’t know they had wanted all along.