User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs?

Earlier this week, Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen wrote an article for Fast Company’s Co.Design blog titled “User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea,” asserting that “user-led innovation can’t create breakthroughs” and using Apple and Ikea as examples. The authors declared that talking to users is harmful to designing products and that brand designers should instead lead users. Skibsted and Hansen go on to say that the most innovative brands do not care about what users want.

First off, it’s absurd to say that the most innovative global brands don’t care about what users want.  In fact, brands care very much about what users want, because, without users and consumers, who exactly is buying these products?  The designers?  I don’t think so.

Next, Skibsted and Hansen write that “users’ insights can’t predict future demand.” They say “the demand for something fundamentally new is completely unpredictable.” On this point, we partially agree. It is true that users cannot conceptualize a product that does not exist and brands should not ask users to design products for them.  However, you should talk to users about their current behaviors and habits, as well as their values.  Through talking with real users, you can identify their pain-points, motivators, influencers and needs.  Then, the smart folks of the brand can use this information to design products that solve a problem, alter a habit or meet a need.

The authors of the Co.Design article also mentions that world events are unpredictable and, therefore, demand is unpredictable.  While world events are unpredictable, users are not.  At the core, you are what you are.  Your attitudes may be affected by events, but you will look for ways to manifest your attitudes and behaviors.  Learning about users’ behaviors and habits allows brands to create products and messaging that communicate appropriately to user needs, which drives demand. Demand prediction is much more likely to be accurate with this behavioral information than just forming hypotheses in a vacuum.

Skibsted and Hansen’s go on to assert that “user-centered processes stifle creativity” and lead to “same-ness.” I just don’t see it.  Talking to users doesn’t stifle creativity.  Instead, it focuses designers on innovation that solves problems, supports or changes behavior and/or meets a need. The end product may be innovative, but it will also be adoptable, usable and buyable.  And at the end of the day, aren’t companies in the business of making money?

Skibsted and Hansen want to believe in the existence of an idealized creative person, one who lives in a world where she can create completely uninhibited, un-hindered by actual people.  Therefore, no one can challenge their opinions or ideas, especially the end user.  As designers, it’s never easy letting go of ideas or seeing a user struggle with a concept.  In fact, user testing is, at times, a bitter medicine.  Each time we test with users, though, they help us find things that either don’t work or that we can make better. It keeps us honest.  The result?  A better end product.

Brands can and should lead, but the best leaders are in touch with those they are leading.

For additional commentary on this article, visit Chris Grams’ blog at a


  1. Daniel O'Sullivan

    This reminds me of an article I read in the nineties about how Simon & Garfunkel got their start in the music business in the sixties.

    In the article, Paul Simon recalled walking into an agency in NYC and playing some songs on his acoustic right in the guy’s office. After hearing songs that have since sold millions worldwide, the guy looks at them, tells them the public is not ready for folk/rock, opens the door for them and asks them to leave.

    Simon persists and tells the guy that he understands that folk/rock is relatively new for the time but he thinks the public is ready for something different and that they will like the catchy lyrics, strong melody lines and upbeat tempo, if given a chance to hear it. The PR guy abruptly grabs him by his jacket collar, stares him in the eye and says, “son I’m public and I don’t like it”. Then he kicks them out.

    Fortunately for their millions of fans, Simon and Garfunkel decided they would not change their brand or approach and kept knocking on doors until the right ones opened.

    As one of many such examples out there, this clearly shows how very often the administers and gatekeepers of brand and/or company resources often confuse being in touch with themselves and their own perceptions with being in touch with their customers, users and the public at large.

    Studies and surveys, while helpful tools on the other hand, are not always reliable indicators of user opinion and perception. In fairness to the PR guy here, listening to “Mrs. Robinson” played by an unknown duo in a quiet room is not the same as listening to it played by established, world-famous superstars live at Madison Square Garden. Ask the same audience member what they think of the same song or concept under each circumstance and you are often likely to get two different opinions. That’s why asking a potential user what they would like to see in a product is not always as insightful as it seems.

    I think designers, like artists and musicians, have to know their audience, their market and their brand goals.

    User input, feedback and studies are helpful tools to have at hand and should be used to gain knowledge, awareness and insight into a problem. At the end of the day though, it’s up to creative visionaries armed with the courage of conviction to use that combination of knowledge and creative talent to bring about meaningful, non-trivial advances.

    Knowing their audience well (possibly even better than the audience knew themselves) is what put Simon and Garfunkel in a position to try something new back then. Real change though, came from conviction and following through with the kind of creativity, confidence and tenacity that made them walk out of this guy’s office and on to eventual fame and fortune.

  2. Michael Pate


    Great response.

    I would definitely agree that creative vision is also a necessity for breakthrough design. User research is, in my opinion, a vital part of a superior design. At then end of the day, though, you still have to actually design something. Even good research needs to be interpreted properly. Moreover, bad research is a lot easier to do than good research. Asking potential users what they want to see in a product is a great example of a pitfall that’s all too easy to fall into. But one must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because not doing any research at all is just as bad, possibly worse. Instead of asking users what they want in a product and just going with it, it takes a process of analytical and creative thought to ask WHY they want what they want and then come up with design solutions based on that. Getting to the deeper core of what people want and need is what separates good research from sloppy research. And that’s what leads to the best design possibilities.

    I’m reminded of a quote from Henry Ford that “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It’s unfortunate that this is often used to justify the mindset that creativity has to be isolated and protected from the end-user. That it’s somehow fragile and sacrosanct. Because it’s really an oversimplification. They might have said they wanted faster horses, but at a deeper level, they were saying that they needed to get where they’re going faster. Ford understood that from observing and talking to people in the real world. He took that knowledge and turned it into a market for a completely new class of product.

  3. Daniel O'Sullivan

    I agree Michael. There’s no single magic bullet when it comes to bringing about non-trivial change.