Fast Co.: User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs


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Apple and Ikea demonstrate that user-centric design is a fallacy, argues this opinion column by design professional Jens Martin Skibsted. He insists that “user insights can’t predict future demand,” “user-centered processes stifles creativity,” and that “user focus makes companies miss out on disruptive innovations.” He also (anonymously) quotes members of the Apple design team regarding their view of user-centric design:

“It’s all bullshit and hot air created to sell consulting projects and to give insecure managers a false sense of security. At Apple, we don’t waste our time asking users, we build our brand through creating great products we believe people will love.”

This is a healthy debate within the design profession. I hope it becomes a bigger and bigger debate, too. Read the full piece here.

  1. I’d agree that it’s not fruitful to ask users to design your products. Most users aren’t designers, not that this would work even if they were. I always understood the term “user-centered design” to be a reaction to “technology-centered design,” i.e. creating products based on what they can do rather than how they will be used. In this article the term seems to mean “asking users what they want and building exactly that.” Are there companies doing that? I assume there must be.

    I find it hard to believe that no one touches or plays an iPhone until it ships (though I once owned an IKEA sofa I’d be willing to believe no one had ever sat in; maybe it didn’t have “comfort” as part of its “vision”). Even if the only user they have to please is Steve Jobs, I have to figure someone who works at Apple stands in for “people” and tries out the product and tells the designers what’s working for them and what isn’t. There are human factors involved there, not just an idealized “vision,” and that’s what I mean by “user-centered design.” It’s not focus groups and surveys.

    Then again, maybe the 3rd generation iPod shuffle was someone’s vision, too, and I wonder how much usability testing it underwent. I don’t see that design on Apple’s site anymore, and to me that proves that their methodology isn’t infallible.

    This quote in particular disturbed me: “The user-centered process is created as linear rational process for innovation and that’s why it’s so popular among managers.” The terms “linear” and “popular among managers” don’t describe any user-centered design process I’ve ever learned or practiced, so either we’re using different lexicons or user-centered design isn’t what I do for a living.

  2. Andrew, I fully agree. It’s a short-sighted post that is going to cause a lot of people who don’t understand user-centered design to question its validity. Sad.

    As you say, even with great innovators in closed-door places like Apple, there is always some checkpoint with users — some kind of user testing (whether formal or internal) to make sure there aren’t outrageous bugs or deficiencies. The stuff is not going from designer to consumer with nobody using it in between.

    I get that the author is saying that being a slave to focus-grouping stifles innovation, especially if you look to it for all direction from your product. But he throws the baby out with the bathwater in implying that all touch points with consumers are a danger to the creative process. I notice he owns a design agency, this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve run across an agency leader who would love nothing more than to skirt around users in order to more easily collect the glory of being called an innovator. Yawn.

    Nothing worse than this kind of self satisfying, self-promotional, smug design chatter.

    Two things from this article that could benefit from user testing:

    1.) The Aeron chair — I have a closet full of jeans with holes in the seat from the sandpaper-like mesh of that “brilliant” innovation.

    2.) The website — the comments button doesn’t work in Safari. Irony!

  3. My opinion as a designer and creator is, that true creative talent will have no concerns as to what the market will require next season …or the next…
    By the time my competators…came to check me out….copied my best designs….put them on their shelves….I am already way ahead with my brand new creations.

  4. No company, especially Apple or Ikea would want to admit that they use consulting or user-centered design approaches, and for many good reasons. It wouldn’t present itself on stage well. Whether they use it or not… well, why wouldn’t they? You can come up with a great idea, but eventually someone is going to have to use it.

  5. Most of this “healthy debate” seems to be based on a complete misunderstanding of what a user-centered design process is (i.e. it’s an argument over the definition of the term, rather than a substantial debate). User-centered design processes really have nothing to do with “asking people for their opinions.” I think we all realize that asking people for their opinions doesn’t work.

    Ironically, unlike a real user-centered software design process, the movie production example mentioned in the article actually *does* rely heavily on stuff like focus groups.

  6. Apple has an entire area dedicated to feedback on their website: link

    I doubt they have this up there just for show. But I’m certain Apple is a filter and not a sponge with user feedback. Like Lukas pointed out, adding whatever feature a user requests isn’t good design. But it does lead to empathy with the user, and eventually an elegant solution.

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