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 NewKind.com.