I’ve recently been working on a couple of user-interface designs for multiple mobile and web platforms, and as such, have been doing lots of research. I have long subscribed to the theory that people don’t know what they want until you tell them. Look at Apple. People didn’t even know they wanted a touch screen that you could swipe to do things on. They thought that it would never fly because iPhone didn’t have buttons. If they had asked users what they wanted, they probably would have said a better keyboard. Apple delivered NO keyboard. Its this type of thinking that I am prone to. Most of the time I find, as do many other designers, I’ll wager, people really don’t know what they want, but they will tell you what they think they want. However, they are often too specific and tunnel-visioned to see that what they think they want is terrible.
Lets look at a real-life scenario. I was once hired to create a logo for a decorative concrete finishing company. After the initial brief and discussions, I discovered their primary clientele was wealthy women over 50, who lived in a specific, up-scale part of towne (“e” added to emphasize how up-scale it was). Now, the man who hired me, the owner of the company, was a redneck, who happened to be really good with a sand blaster. They said they wanted a “classy” logo to impress the older ladies and increase business in that market. That sounded like a great idea, and it was. I went to work doing demographic research and scoping out their competitors. I found their competitors had the most god-awful visual identities and almost no one was catering specifically to that demographic, and anyone who was was seriously doing themselves a disservice. It seemed to me that to make them stand out, I would just do the opposite of what all the competitors were doing and…actually make something classy. I did just that. It was a masterpiece. A gem. A diamond in the rough. That rare convergence of light and emotion longed for by all artists. It was immediately and unceremoniously pooh-poohed on. The owner questioned my parentage, said that my design resembled a part of the female anatomy, and questioned my education and ability. Despite the overwhelming evidence supporting my position, the test panels of wealthy women who actually lived in their target neighborhood, and my urging, the guy just wasn’t having it. He said, “No, I want it to be classy. This thing looks like it’s wearing panties. Here’s what you need to do. I want a woodpecker wearing a wife-beater, jeans and work boots, smoking a cigar, and jack-hammering our name into some concrete.” I am not making this up.
This guy didn’t know the first thing about logo design or what it took to reach his target demographic, but it was his business and no one was going to tell him what he needed but him. He eventually got his secretary to make a logo using Microsoft Paint (I’m serious). It was atrocious, ghastly and *insert another appropriately “classy” word of disgust*. He championed it as the pinnacle of design sensibility and suggested I take notes. Three months later they changed the name. Six months later the business went bankrupt.
This brings me to my point. Do people actually know what they want? In the above example, that man knew what he thought he wanted, but everything about it was actually hurting his ability to actually achieve his overall goal. What he wanted was totally not what he needed. I hearken back to the famous Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses!” No one even knew what a car was, much less what one did, or what uses there were for it. Not until Ford told them that was what they really wanted did cars become not only a useful machine for transportation and recreation, but a serious status symbol. Same with the iPhone, iPad, or any other iThing people are enslaved to. Only because of a knowing disregard for what people wanted, were these things made possible. True innovation cannot happen unless one is willing to suspend what they think they want, and focus on what could be. We the designers are willing to do that, we must needs be, or what good is a dream without someone to dream it? Ford told people what they wanted, and they completely accepted it. Steve Jobs told people what they wanted and they listened. People don’t truly know what they want until someone tells them.
I just read an interesting post from Teehan+Lax written by Peter Hui titled “In Search of Innovation” which deals with much of what I’m talking about here. Its insights are terrific. Head on over and check it out. I’d like to know what anyone reading this thinks about user-centered design. Lets discuss in the comments.