Saturday, January 21, 2006

"Who says customers can't tell you how to innovate?"

A colleague from the field of interaction design recently commented "Who says customers can't tell you how to innovate?" and provided an illustration of a customers' design idea collected through some user research a number of years ago, and details of a recently shipped product that now (these few years later) uses the latest technologies to create the design that the customer envisioned.

My reaction is that if the research and design community is making such statements, that's rather arrogant, and probably going a bit far.

I think the statement that our community more frequently makes is that users are the experts at 'real life use'; but not necessarily the best people to design the next version. That customers can't tell us how to innovate, is a much more extreme view. Of course, this statement, made in its milder form, still does not mean that customers' design ideas are irrelevant, ... as was aptly shown by the example my colleague gave.

Designers can be expert at design if those designers have access to sufficient details about different types of user requirements, contexts of use, and task analyzes. If we couple that with appropriate training and design experience, then designers can make expert design decisions. Despite the 'research data - design' link that my colleague gave, most user researchers and interaction designers have been in situations where they have had to listen to customers explain what they think and believe they would like to see designed (in contrast to concerns and pain points). Often times the designer knows, either through previous usability tests, or through other design experience, that those design ideas would just not work, or would provide a worse experience for the user.

If we, as designers, haven't built up a good understanding of our users and their environments of work, ... the likelihood of customers creating better innovations than designers is presumably higher than it would otherwise be. Whether or not we have a good understanding of our users and their environment of work, it is surely the case that there are people in those work environments that we are designing products for, that may well have design suggestions should could be the next best thing. Of course this will happen, because these customers are living with the issues and frustrations (whether large or small) everyday. There are innovative thinkers in every field. And if our customers' design ideas are flawed, as user researchers we should listen, question, and analyze, so that we can uncover the frustrations and formalize the requirements that our customers are hoping their designs will address.

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