Rebuttal to “Why its harmful to listen to users”

February 17, 2011 at 5:18 pm Leave a comment

I find writing blog posts very difficult. They require time, thought, revision, etc (I haven’t learned the art of posting small tidbits). But earlier this week,  this blog post was sent to the London Open Coffee mailing list to which I subscribe. I was pretty much fuming after I read the article and felt compelled to write a response. Below is what I sent back to the mailing list, and I figured I might as well commit myself to my opinion and post it on here as well. Comments welcome, as always!

I’m possibly going to start an argument here, but I really dislike this article.

Why?  The author uses the terms “User-led innovation” and “User centric” synonymously. They are not. User-led innovation is when “users play an active part in the development of new or improved products and services”, but user-centered design is “a process by which the needs, wants, and limitations of end users of a product are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process”.

The first implies that the user designs the innovation, which the author argues does not work. I agree, users often don’t know what they want and generally work within the confines of their experience, which is limited. The second implies that users needs (read: problems) are taken into account when the product is designed.

These two situations play out VERY differently when it comes to product design. Let’s imagine we’re the creators of the Sony Walkman, before we’ve actually designed it….

User-led innovation would ask “How would you improve the design of the Sony Boombox.” The user might respond with: “I’d make it smaller so I could carry it around to more places.” Great, so now we have a smaller boombox.

User-centric design would through research & observation get to the bottom of a) When do our customers use our product and why? b) When do our customers not user our product and why? c) Why do non-customers not use our product. Just some of the discoveries you could find about the boombox through this research:  customers want to, but don’t take it to the beach because it doesn’t fit in their bag with the rest of their beach stuff, and it disturbs other people on the beach, including their husband or wife. That makes it much more specific for how small a design should be considered and it makes a case for no speakers at all, but externalizing the sound to a set of headphones.

I could go on. The point is, you should always always always understand customer problems. In the case of Apple, while I don’t know exactly how they innovate new products, I highly suspect they’re all working off their current dissatisfaction with something they’re using. So they’re still understanding the customer problem, but they are the customers themselves.

I’m not saying that an innovation that answers customer problems will always succeed (there are so many other factors involved), but it definitely increases your probability of success and it helps you analyze possible innovation ideas. This article seems to say “Ignore the customer” and I’m wholeheartedly disagreeing.

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