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User-Led Innovation Can't Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea

Companies should lead their users, not the other way around.

The user is king. It's a phrase that's repeated over and over again as a mantra: Companies must become user-centric. But there's a problem: It doesn't work. Here's the truth: Great brands lead users, not the other way around.

The Apple and IKEA way

Take Apple. One evening, well into the night, we asked some of our friends on the Apple design team about their view of user-centric design. Their answer? ?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."

Another hyper-growth brand, IKEA, has the same belief. One of us had the privilege of working closely with IKEA's global brand and design leaders; at IKEA the unspoken philosophy is: "We show people the way." IKEA designers don't use user studies or user insights to create their products. When I asked them why, they said "We tried and it didn't work."

Of course, neither Apple nor IKEA will say this publicly since they are both extremely closed companies and would risk offending users (and the design community) by speaking out against user-centeredness.

And since no one will speak up, the false value of the user-as-leader has spread.

Be a Visionary

If users can't tell a company what to do, what should companies do instead? The best brands are all guided by a clear vision for the world, a unique set of values, and a culture that makes them truly unique and that no user insights could ever change.

They define their own rules.The vision must come first. This could come from the client, designers, a team, an organization, or a design leader. It needs to be clear and applied consistently over the project.

Create an icon

The same goes for truly extraordinary products, the icons of the world. There are three types of iconic products and none of them are made through user-driven design.

Democratic Icons

These could also be termed "slow" icons. These products take a long time to become icons. They are usually of plain or simple design, created to fulfill a certain function, such as the paper clip, tea bags, potato peelers, and the mailbox, all of which are valued for their functionality, rather than their aesthetics. Over time, users become attached to them and eventually, these products gain so much meaning that they start to gain cultural currency and layers of connotations. These icons are generally easily available.

Design Icons

This is when a familiar product such as a chair or a car whose design is particularly shape-driven will get a makeover, with an innovative design that alters the look of this familiar object. The first reaction of the mass audience is often negative, claiming the object "looks weird." But over time, the audience adapts to the change and comes to love the product for its personality; it attains cultural relevance and becomes iconic. Hans Wegner's Y-chair and the Aeron chair are typical examples of design classics that were adopted late.

Instant Icons

Instant may be familiar products or offer a familiar function like the design icons, but something about their design that make them essentially new products. They open new markets and create new demand?just think of the Polaroid camera, the Sony Walkman, the Flip Camera, the Blackberry, and the Apple iPod.

Why it's harmful to listen to the users

But can't you create radical new products based on what the user wants? Why do the most innovative brands not care about what users want?

Users insights can't predict future demand

The demand for something fundamentally new is completely unpredictable. Even the users themselves have no idea if they will like an entirely product before they start using it (and maybe, only after years of use). Demand for something new cannot be predicted.

The world is driven forward by improbable, high-impact events, both negative and positive: September 11th, the subprime crisis, or the explosive rise of social media. These events completely changed the world and were difficult to predict?perhaps a few individuals saw a glimpse of the future, but the majority of people were totally unprepared. It's the same with new products and brands?you can't foresee what will be successful.

This is a very scary thought for most business leaders, but the good news is that there are ways to deal with it. All creative industries are dependent on the constant launch of radically new products. And the music, movie, publishing, and fashion industries have tried to find stability in a sea of unpredictability by constantly putting out new products and seeing what sticks.

They have learned to hire the best and the most creative people in the world (whether it's directors, music producers, or authors), worked hard to launch a broad portfolio of products and to speed up the time it takes their products to reach the market.

User-centered processes stifles creativity

Could you imagine Steven Spielberg starting out new film projects with intense user studies and insights? Not really. There is a reason why Spielberg and all other profoundly creative people don't work in a user-centered way. The user-centered process is created as linear rational process for innovation and that's why it's so popular among managers.

But as studies of successful innovations and creativity shows, creating something new is a chaotic, unpredictable, frustrating, and very, very hard process. And most of all, it's the result of extraordinary efforts and visions of a few extremely talented people. These creative people will feel limited and bored, not inspired, if they have to start out a creative process with a lot of user knowledge. Their inspiration comes from a multiple of sources and is highly individual.

Creating a formula will always be in vain and won't result in something really new.

User focus makes companies miss out on disruptive innovations

Focusing on users will lead companies to make incremental innovations that typically tend to make the products more expensive and complicated and ironically, in the long run, less competitive.

Radical innovations typically gain traction in the margins of a market and the majority of customers (at least in the beginning) will dislike change. If a company bases their decisions on user studies, they will conclude that most radically new innovations are not rational to pursue. This often means that companies miss out on new growth markets that can end up eventually eliminating their business.

The same logic applies to branding. A company will always go for very small incremental changes in their branding efforts if they base their decision on user input. In the short run, minor changes pleases their users. In the long run, it means the big brand will be run over by bolder, often smaller, and more innovative brands that redefine an industry.

User-led design leads to sameness

Even if user insights were useful, it isn't a competitive advantage. Even the most advanced users studies are now widely available. Most companies have conducted these studies and they have had the same insights about their users as you have. Therefore, product strategies based on studies will tend to be similar to their competitors. The result is a sea of sameness.

This isn't a theoretical point?most industries are characterized by very similar products and brand positions, partially because companies have listened too much to their users. Branding is really about differentiation, about standing out. User centeredness leads to the opposite, similarity.

It's time for brands to step up and trust themselves again.


Written by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.

Rasmus Bech Hansen is a senior partner at Kontrapunkt, a brand and design consultancy, and a sough-after conference speaker and TV commentator.

Jens Martin Skibsted is founding partner of KiBiSi and Biomega. He is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and Global Agenda Council on Design member, and one of the 40 Under 40 chosen by I.D. Magazine. In 2009, he co-founded the product design group KiBiSi with Lars Holme Larsen and Bjarke Ingels.

[Top image via Flipboard]

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  • Paul Williams

    I am curious looking at Apple if they would differentiate between product design and service design.

    To me the Genius Bar and Apple's checkout process must have been the result of developing empathy for the current experience found with hardware manufacturers including Apple and the competitive set. Next, I would imagine they set out to find inspiration from other industries such as hospitality, developed a working model for how these two service designs should be assembled and then tested the hypothesis with real world customers in mock store environments.

    Am I off base?

  • This seems a straw man argument to me. None of the companies I've worked with slavishly ask customers "what do you want?" and give it to them. That's bad and lazy research. Smart innovators understand who the users are and what they need (not the same as what they want). Additionally, all the innovation and thought leadership in the world is pointless if the user can't figure out your interface; user testing is a necessary step to avoid failure. A cursory search shows that Apple does employ user researchers, and it seems ridiculous to suggest they don't engage in user testing.

  • Its true that because many companies use the same user research techniques they end up with the same insights. I've seen this first hand with mobile operators and manufacturers for a TV project.

    In theory if you execute properly on the user insight you should have a perfect product. And if you backward engineer the design thinking in great products its often tangible how this links to observed user research and a deep understanding of what users want to achieve.

    The big problem is getting organisation to collaborate to execute a product that remains user focussed without skimping on technical, build and designed quality. I've seen product work from a large Korean company which is obviously based on user research but has been executed by a bunch of siloed function teams so the experience is utterly inconsistent across functions.

  • చక్రవర్తి గవిని

    When you do market research it is not "user insights", but the insight drawn by the product managers or designers that enables disruptive innovations.

  • There is a substantial difference between User Centered, and User Lead. I don't know any good designers who would bet their career on a use lead strategy. Are you confused about the difference? Or is this a slight of hand with word usage?

  • That some designers at Apple might think that divine-aesthetic inspiration is what guides good design is not terribly surprising. I think this is their Achilles-heel, to be honest - the way in which they are most likely to mis-understand the source of their success and thereby kill it. Anyone who would call themselves a "designer" is tempted by the model in which their work is guided by intuition and inspiration - thoroughly grounded in a sort of talent that cannot be acquired through menial means.

    To my mind, Google has a corresponding problem that "big data" is the last arbiter of all that is good and - again - direct contact with real, smelly individuals is simply not necessary to good product design. They are both blindingly successful companies, but these beliefs/attributions of the source of their success are wrong (even if not uncommon amongst those who work there!).

  • This article is built on the assumption that UCD is about listening to what users want/say/say they need, not to what they actually do and feel. The essence of good UCD is to place your product in context, yes the user's context! Being vision driven is fine, but the companies that are, underestimate the amount of observing, reading and asking they actually do. They have done more research on the user and the context than they like to admit. They do it implicitly, but they still do it. A good politician does not perform referenda all the time, but does listen to the people while walking through the city, while talking to groups, while reading the news, etc, etc. Their vision is a mere interpretation of the reality they have seen and observed.

    So, Apple and IKEA, step away from that 'we are the friendly dictators who know best' image and admit already you're nothing more than good politicians in a democracy. And Jens, will you do the same?

  • The story promises to debunk the myth of user lead design then fails to address the claim beyond saying some guy he talked to once called it "bullshit".

    There are many examples of revolutionary user lead design comming out of hackathons, community makerspaces, amature open-source projects and web 2.0 sites, none of which are addressed. I can't name three things Apple has designed, if the author is to be believed this is caused by users.

    I bet nobody here can name a unique: consumer item, interface or advert Apple has designed in the last twenty years.

    The other company given as an example is Ikea, who I suppose hate user lead design so much they never visit this site:

  • There are many instances where your assumption about the flawed approach to user-centered design has led to disasters, literally. But it is not in the hiring of UCD specialists to study users in the course of their work. Rather it is in the enlistment of actual users to do the design directly. It has happened in aerospace, medicine, banking, and other fields. Thinking that users assigned to the development team is the equivalent to enlisting user experience designers is a grave fallacy. And there are many frightening examples of it.

  • If your user-centered design amounts to simply giving users what they ask for, you're doing it wrong. If your physician simply prescribes the treatment you request, you should change doctors. User studies are for gathering fodder for inspiration. Every really good designer knows that. When Henry Ford said that users would have simply asked for faster horses, he was right of course, but he was targeting their deeper needs.

    UCD is not about not just meeting their demands. Understanding their needs better than they do is the point. UCD methods are for gaining that deep understanding to inspire genius design. Otherwise, you're doing it wrong.

  • Very provocative article. I'm wondering if all the user-centric-design craze is partly just a an over-correction to a new phenomenon. The Apple and Ikea examples arose before the full disintermediation disruption of the web really happened. This disintermediation is an incredibly disruptive force, and something that businesses and the economy are still grappling with. As you say, the vision and innovation don't come from the users, but designers can exploit this disintermediation force and get additional data in the form of direct, immediate input from users. This input is part of the whole "big data" picture, and can serve as a reality check providing constant, little course corrections. The trick is to not let the inmates take over the asylum. But if you can find the right balance between user-centric and designer-centric, you end up with a whole that is worth a lot more than the sum of the parts. Excuse the mixed metaphors, and thanks again for the interesting article.

  • Everything that has already been said, but I just want to point out the fact the father of UX and fierce advocate of UCD Don Norman worked at one of the aforementionned company. Indeed, these companies don't exist in a vaccum - away-from-everything location. Even if they don't actually do research (which I seriously doubt) listen to trends, read report and do market studies that prove that users need something to fill already existing and/or not yet conscious needs.

  • Jan Belon

    Interesting article but, as said in the other comments, it somehow misses the essence of user-centered. Users are a great source of inspiration and validation, but you do need a team of designers to come up with the radical ideas & concepts. And users should be the center, because it gives sense to what we create. Radical or future innovations should always make sense for people, in that way we are talking user-centered design.

  • Interesting article but misses the point in my opinion. It is not about being user led but user inspired. Customer insight provides brilliant stimulus from which to radically innovate. It is up to innovation leaders along with right mix of internal and external stakeholders to interpret the customer needs through a series of creative exercises and R&D processes. Have coincidentally written a short blog on this topic today:

  • Kenny Valdivia

    I've read some good articles on this website, but this is definitely not one of them. The author doesn't really understand the meaning of user-centered design. At times, it sounds like he's saying: "User-centered design is letting your customers define your product", which couldn't be more wrong. It more like understanding your users' context and key "pains" and then coming up with a revolutionary and original solution. Funny how many marketing and design "gurus" we have out there.

  • Guest

    Maybe the author didn't pay attention in strategy classes. Its not about letting customers rule your company. Its about LISTENING to your customers to know their needs and wishes. Or be a lucky one.

  • Ron Strawbridge

    listening to user feedback (feedback from the correct kind of questioning) and understanding how to weigh that feedback can be an important piece to a biz strategy.
    I have seen too many execs rely on their gut (or indigestion) when the answer to a particular problem was in the user research.