“We want to be more like Apple or Google”
Lately, more and more project managers and business owners have expressed their desire to replicate Apple and Google’s power and ease of use. As much as they enjoy Apple and Google’s clean and friendly aesthetics and design, they also covet the innovation these companies bring to the marketplace. As a User Experience professional and someone who works with a great design team, I know that the usability and visual appeal of a product or site is something that a traditional User Centered Design (UCD) process delivers. However, delivering innovation can’t be so easy, can it? If so, why doesn’t everyone do it?
This resounding feedback reminded me of FastCo Design’s recent article: “User-Led Innovation Can't Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea"
. The author contends user-centered design is misguided. He claims the best breakthroughs come when talented designers and brand thinkers envision new solutions that users don’t even know about yet, citing Blackberry and the iPod. He believes these ideas would never have developed in a user-centric process because users don’t have the foresight to envision designs they don’t know about yet. This is the classic Genius designer argument
The debate between “genius” and “user-centered” design is not new. However, misunderstandings and arguments over the differences in approaches are a result of different interpretations of user-centered design and the goals of different design projects. When speaking with clients and colleagues, I make the following distinctions:
- User-centered design is not necessarily user-led design. If you are looking for an innovative solution, don’t simply ask users what they want. Users are not good at envisioning new solutions. Developing an innovative design this way is not recommended.
- Understanding your target audience is extremely important. In some instances, this may not take much work to developing an innovative solution. For example, if you are designing something new for a broad consumer audience, chances are that the designers may be one of the target audience and have a head start understanding the potential experience. However, for specialized domains, designers may need to ramp up on the audience and understand what it is like to walk in their shoes. For example, I am not a veterinarian or a CPA. For projects where I’ve designed solutions for these audiences, I’ve done my due diligence to understand the audience. I don’t necessarily ask them directly what they want, but I make sure to understand their perspective and frustration points. At Mad*Pow, we call this Research-Inspired Design.
- Lastly, recognize the relative importance of innovation versus usability by convention. The goal of many design projects is not necessarily to develop an innovative design, but rather create a design that is highly usable, efficient and drives customer satisfaction. In this case, application of a user-centered process design is critical. However, this doesn’t mean creativity is thrown out the window, but rather that you are doing your due diligence to make sure the design is intuitive and useful.
Business owners and non-designers are exposed to many interfaces and products these days. It is easy for them to point out products from Apple or Ikea as examples of designs they’d like to replicate. It’s up to design and UX professionals to help guide the creative design process and make sense of the Genius Design vs. User Centered Design differences as appropriate for their given project goals.