A few months back Fast Company’s Co.Design blog published a controversial post that triggered a lot of discussion. In their article provocatively titled User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea, Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen wrote:
“[User-centered design] doesn’t work. Here’s the truth: Great brands lead users, not the other way around.”
Skibsted and Hansen cited Apple and IKEA as some of the most innovative brands that don’t follow the user-centric design model. They say that their friends in the Apple design team spoke out against user-centric design because it’s “a waste of time”, and similarly at IKEA because “it doesn’t work.” They argued that brands have to take the lead in innovation with a strong and consistent vision, and outlined several reasons why it’s actually detrimental to listen to your users.
I have to admit, their examples are compelling, but are they correct? How do we reconcile their claims with what we know about the value of design research and user-centered design?
What is innovation anyway?
Let’s first define what we mean when we say innovation. If we go by the textbook definition, innovation in short is a renewal or improvement on something—e.g. a process, system or product—that changes the way people make decisions and do things, outside their norm. In other words, it has to be something new and useful enough for people to adopt en masse, otherwise it’s just another useless invention. Most often, these innovations are small and incremental: cars keep getting faster and more fuel efficient; TVs keep getting bigger and thinner; iPads keep getting faster and sexier—you get the idea. But sometimes they can be radical and lead to revolutionary breakthroughs: automobiles replacing horse-drawn buggies as the primary mode of transportation; televisions replacing radios as the dominant home entertainment medium; iPads replacing netbooks as the best-selling ultra-portable computing device.
So what does this all mean?
Let’s go back to the original question. Can UCD lead to breakthroughs? I want to make the claim that in most cases the short answer is no—that UCD alone is not enough. In a nutshell, UCD is about listening to the users, analyzing their problem, and providing solutions that meet their needs. These methodologies can often lead to incremental innovations—that is, incrementally improving and optimizing pre-existing solutions. But what about radical innovation? I think the answer lies in how the pioneers of innovation did it in the past.
A catalyst for innovation
Let’s take a look at Henry Ford for example. He is famously quoted to have said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses!” However, what most people forget is that Ford was an engineer and an experimental hobbyist. He was experimenting with gasoline engines that he eventually put on four bicycle wheels. He called it the Ford Quadricycle and it predated the first Model T by about 12 years. Nobody knew what a “car” was, let alone find any use for it.
Here’s what I’m trying to get at: the man responsible for one of the greatest innovations of our time had, what I would like to call, a tinkerers’ personality. Someone who was always curious and loved working on things. And it wasn’t just Ford; Thomas Edison, while working on improving the telegraph transmitter, heard noises coming from the paper tape that resembled spoken words. He had a hunch that telephone messages could be recorded in a similar way and, after a lot of tinkering, eventually created the phonograph. I believe this tinkerers’ personality is common among the world’s greatest innovators and was a catalyst for a lot of the radical innovations of the past.
Finding the balance
Adam Richardson, Strategy Director for Marketing at Frog Design, sums up the challenge of innovation this way:
“[ … ] the pendulum has swung so much toward doing user research that we (as a profession) risk losing the magic that comes from conceptual thinking. The seductiveness of evidence and insight that comes from design research can push inspiration, intuition, hypotheses, hunches and non-linear thinking to the sidelines. Analysis overwhelms creativity.”
I’m inclined to agree with this sentiment. I surmise that the pioneers of innovation really did have inspiration, intuition, hypotheses, hunches and non-linear thinking on their side. These are traits I would consider a part of a tinkerers’ personality.
In a recent article Don Norman, one of the pioneers of the UX field, points out that it’s sometimes good to act first, and do the research later. In our search for innovation, it is dangerous to swing the pendulum too far in any one direction. Too far towards research and we get overly deterministic, stifling design; too far towards experimentation and we get arbitrary and open-ended design. If we can strike a balance between creating opportunities that foster tinkerers and deploying the proven processes of UCD in everything that we do, I believe we are at least on the right path to doing more and more innovative work.