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.
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.
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 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.
Rasmus Bech Hansen is a global brand expert and visionary business and policy thinker. For a decade he has helped ambitious companies and countries build brands that redefine marketplaces. He is a senior partner at Kontrapunkt, a brand and design consultancy, sought after expert and speaker at conferences and commentator on TV.
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. He was awarded the 40 Under 40 Design Award 2010. In 2009, he co-founded the product design supergroup KiBiSi with Lars Holme Larsen and Bjarke Ingels. He was born in 1970 in Copenhagen, Denmark.