The Debate Over User Research and Innovation … and Apple

From the projekt202 archives

It all started with this pretty controversial post on Fast Company

The author equates user-led design and user-centered design as the same thing, which is just not the case. They go on to say that user research is stifling for brand innovation and that marketers know best what users want (citing Apple as a prime example).

And this was the most recent formal rebuttal…

Again citing Apple as an example, this author describes user-centered design research as putting yourself in the user’s shoes. This is an area in which p202 has developed some very cool tools to help gain empathy with users. Our arsenal includes user states, user intentions, personas, and the Maslow-like needs hierarchy we use during deep dives with clients.

Together, the articles make clear that user research can be construed to mean many different things. Obviously we don’t simply ask users what they want and go build it that way – we watch them performing their tasks and ask them about their motivations, values, and goals, and then use that information and our creative problem solving skills to truly innovate!

Personally, I cringe when people argue that Apple does no user research, so why should they? Sure, Apple doesn’t use self-reporting techniques to find out what users need (such as focus groups or user interviews), or perhaps even conduct formal observation studies, but their most successful products are designed for the masses and I would argue that Apple designers are observing people in the world all the time! Not only that – they are also their own end user! For most of the products that we design at p202, we need to seek out and observe the end users because what they are doing is not part of our everyday reality. The user performs much more specific tasks in a world that we wouldn’t otherwise see (e.g. medical billing, human resource management, active trading, etc.).

In my experience, user-informed (NOT led) insights + effective empathy tools + awesome designers = the path to true innovation!