Apple & IKEA are Full of $@%!: How Great Companies Utilize User-Centric Design
They may not want to admit it, but their product innovation is based on user-centric design
I just finished reading this blog post on Fast Co.’s design blog (which, by the way, usually has great stuff). This piece is about how Apple and IKEA claim not to do “user-centric innovation.” The implication is that to be an iconic brand and produce real breakthroughs, you shouldn’t listen to users. Two points: First, Apple and IKEA are full of it. Second, take their advice at your peril.
The problem here is that the phrase “user-centric” is being used in a very narrow and simplistic way: ask customers what they want and then do exactly what they tell you. This is a bad approach if you are inventing the iPhone or an entirely new way to supply furniture. But it may be a good one if you are doing the third generation of AppleTV (which by the way, I just filled out an Apple survey about) or making the next in a long-line of shelving units.
But even if you don’t specifically ask customers what to build, that doesn’t mean you aren’t doing user-centric design. Apple’s product line is built on a deep and committed vision of what makes for a great computing experience, especially among unsophisticated users. IKEA recognized why consumers hated furniture shopping and built an entirely new experience around this user-centric vision. I guarantee you, Steve Jobs has an extremely strong opinion of what users really want (simplicity, attractiveness, quality, seamlessness) and mercilessly drives this vision into his minions at every possible opportunity.
Did Steve get this vision from a survey? No. But it also isn’t magic (even though he creates a reality distortion field in order to make you believe it is). It’s a combination of talent, perceptiveness, years of deep experience, pattern recognition and great observational skills. Apple makes product-after-product that are loved by its users. It would be impossible for this to have happened so successfully over so many years by luck or pure instinct alone. If Apple isn't practicing user-centric design, I don’t know who is.
So this is really an argument about methodology. Of course, you must be user-centric. Your product will be used and purchased by....wait for it....users. The only question is, “How do you go about being user-centric?” Do you rely on your own observations and ideas of what users will want? Do you chat with and observe a small group and distill findings to a few nuggets? Do you hire a team of researchers to live in the field and bring back new insights? Do you do quantitative studies?
The answer is the same as it always is in complicated situations: it depends. It depends entirely on your goals and your level of familiarity with the users you are targeting. If you are working on a disruptive, frame-breaking innovation (think iPhone), then directly asking current users is a terrible idea. They just can’t see the future. Remember that quote from Henry Ford about how his customers would ask for a faster horse? If you are doing this kind of product, then your insights have to come from deep, deep observations (your own or from people you pay) and you must remain committed to the resulting vision in the face of an onslaught of contradictory evidence and opinion. If you are making the better, faster, cheaper version of an existing product (which is fine by the way; not everything is an iPhone), then user interviews and questionnaires may be just what the doctor ordered.
But whatever you do, don’t listen to Apple and IKEA. They are more user-centric than most. That’s why they win. They just want you to believe it’s magic.
written by Dan Ostrower, VP of Product Development