Fastco Design article: more hating on UCD

16 Feb 2011 - 10:05am
5 years ago
13 replies
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Margaret Schultz

Yet another article on why "we don't need no stinking user centered design" ~ Anyone seen this one? Thoughts?

It seems to me to be just a rehashing of some of the others, citing Apple as one of the examples.



16 Feb 2011 - 10:32am

This article conflates focus-grouping with market research with (co-)design with user testing.

Certainly these companies do market-research, testing, and refinement based on user testing: their users are  themselves. It just so happens that inside Apple, fabricator of leisure tech products, the makers like and want leisure tech products. They are their own focus group, their own one-way mirror usability lab. IKEA's designers all look, persona-wise, exactly like the people who would buy and use their products. Yes, I bet neither engages IDEO or Fjord to come up with new products or "market disruptors" -- in Apple's case they just have to look which concetps their competitors do badly, in IKEA they look around the house and then go to a furniture biennale for the best ideas to translate down.

What both these companies have is a clear pervasive vision and enforced culture that "good enough" is not "good enough", that only "great" is "good enough". Managers, in my experiences, turn to UCD processes when this culture is not pervasive and it is business as usual of being first or second or having the pre-determined targets; in those environments managers want to know what compromises they can get away with to stay within budget or make a large enough segment of the market pie chart happy, and UCD can get them there. And I have seen plenty of outside agencies come up with disruptive products but large companies simply ignoring them.

Apple and IKEA have a culture of making the best product possible or not launch at all.


16 Feb 2011 - 10:34am


I think they may be mixing research in general with UCD practices. It's obviously a title that's suppose to get a knee jerk reaction from the community. 

I mean this quote come on “we don’t waste our time asking users.” I don’t think designers waste time ASKING users either. Design research is a tool to glean insight and ultimately allow the design talent to explore future possibilities. It's another lens to apply, it isn't the only one. This isn’t the Simpons episode where Hurb asks Homer to build a car for him.



16 Feb 2011 - 11:05am
Traci Lepore

I did read this. It is a little frustrating to hear it put so black and white. While I totally agree that a linear UCD process is very stagnant and not going to help you design creatively (with an innovative outcome), it's a little harsh to say ALL UCD is that way and bad. I fully believe that a more iterative and non-linear approach most definitely helps to drive innovation. My analogy for this is the rehearsal process for play-making and how this works in that context. They rehearse, where they try things, some of which don't work and get rejected, and do rough run-throughs, and dress rehearsals all before the final "performance" is ready. It's much like brainstorming, and prototyping in the UX world. My article on UXmatters (Putting Together a Production: A Rehearsal Strategy for Design) talks more about it.

16 Feb 2011 - 11:16am
Jo Packer

Yeah, one of our developers sent it round. This article is extremely unhelpful.

There is some truth in the statement 'Users insights can’t predict future demand' but to say 'User focus makes companies miss out on disruptive innovations' is not true and if you do conduct user research and don't come up with innovative ideas to move your product or services forward then this would be down to the people on the team and the techniques they use to generate and explore ideas and concepts not a fault of them conducting user research. 

Similarly to say 'User-led design leads to sameness' is also untrue. Yes if you choose to pay money for industry market research reports them maybe, but if you are conducting your own research with your own users or potential users your synthesize of what you learn will be tailored to your product and not easily transferrable to anyone working in that space.

This statement really got my goat though. 'Most industries are characterized by very similar products and brand positions, partially because companies have listened too much to their users' there are many factors that could contribute to a particular sector sameness in products and brand positions. 

In summary this is terrible article which provides no solid examples of where a company conducted user research which caused them to design a substandard product, which was similair to their competitors and contained zero innovation.

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Here's an extract from my response to the developers email


there are some interesting thoughts in this article, but he's missing the point of user centred design. UCD is not about asking people what they want and building that, it's about understanding the desires, behaviours, attitudes and motivations of the people who use your products. Then using this insight to help you innovate.  


Here's a quote from a recent new york times article on Steve Jobs 


employees at Apple stores provide the company with a powerful window into user habits and needs, even if it is not conventional market research. "Steve visits the Apple store in Palo Alto frequently," said a former consultant to Apple. The design decisions made by Mr. Jobs, Mr. McKenna said, are informed by his grasp of users' desires, technology trends and popular culture.


and another from Miyamoto (Mario brothers fame) article 


sometimes I ask the younger game creators to try playing the games they are making by switching their left and right hands. In that way, they can understand how inexperienced the first-timer is.


Jobs and Miyamoto, not surprisingly, both have the habit, the discipline and the worldview to create things with someone else in mind as they understand and listen to their customers.


The Jobs and Miyamonto quotes were taken from a recent post on Good experience entitled 'The myth of the lone genius innovator





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16 Feb 2011 - 1:27pm
Diana Wynne

Jo, I hadn't seen Mark's article, so thanks for the link. Although asking game developers to switch hands may build empathy, but doesn't make them typical users or novices.

Of course companies know what's best for the common folk. That's why there are so many failed products. Interesting to see IKEA mentioned in the same breath as Apple too.

16 Feb 2011 - 3:13pm

All this fuss about genius designers reinventing the world with their latest bulk of hyper-creative disruptive innovations is insulting. Any good designer I know is doing research to inform his work, and no single one will reject to get insights on people he is designing for. Yes there is no linear way to derive a great design from user research, but there is also no way to do it alone in a dark room.

17 Feb 2011 - 2:21am
Graham Sear
An article written by people who don't understand the process and what it's used for. As Jo says, it's for gaining insight and not literally asking people what they want. People don't normally know what they want. Designers can not be expected to know everything about their users. For me the UCD model gives extra insight into user behaviour and motivators and from that you interpret the best way to satisfy those needs in whichever creative and innovative way you see fit..  As far as I'm aware Apple designers are the users. They recruit people who use their products. Take an Apple designer and ask them to design an interface for something they are very removed from and I highly doubt it'll be of the same quality. Many incredible products have been designed without using this model but it's a tool and if it doesn't work for you then my advice is not to use it. Any process doesn't guarantee quality and innovation, only good designers can do that.
17 Feb 2011 - 1:20pm
Adam Korman

There's nothing really that far off-base with the premise of the article (that "user-led innovation can't create breakthroughs"), except that it's a straw man argument. Being focused on users and handing design over to users are very different things, and I imagine that very few companies/products are actually user-led in the way described in the article. The Apple designer they quote says:

"we don’t waste our time asking users, we build our brand through creating great products we believe people will love."

That sounds like an extreme focus on users to me, and that understanding and internalizing what their customers want and need is a core part of how they approach design.

The article also seems to presume that the goal (and path to success) for all products and companies is to be disruptive, iconic breakthroughs. This is not always the case, and not an appropriate approach to solve all design or business problems.

17 Feb 2011 - 4:10pm
David B. Rondeau

The article is filled with faulty logic and contains no real evidence to back up its many claims. The author is certainly entitled to his opinion, but the article isn't written as an opinion piece, it's written as if everything was already a known fact. This is a topic I am very passionate about, so I apologize in advance for the rather long post.

Aside from the issues already raised by others, there are still a few points in the article that I think need to be addressed:

"At Apple, we don’t waste our time asking users..."

I think this is one of the most often misunderstood aspects of UCD. If you understand UCD, you know that if you ask users what they want, you will get poor results. If you don't understand why this is true, then you should read the article Don't Ask Your Customer.

"The best brands are all guided by a clear vision for the world..."

This statement makes it seem that UCD and "vision" are mutually exclusive—that they are somehow incompatible. I've been practicing Contextual Design for 10 years and I could offer many examples to prove that this is just not true.  Vision provides the high-level direction and drive, but it can obviously benefit greatly from user research. The information gathered from doing real field interviews can help companies better understand their market, see new design opportunities, adjust their strategy and direction, and create products that offer clear value to customers—all within their vision.

"There are three types of iconic products and none of them are made through user-driven design."

 Seriously? Has the author never heard of the OXO peeler or the Swiffer? Were these products not user-driven? I think this highlights one of the main problems with this article, which starts in the title, with the term "User-Led." Good designers that do real user research aren't being led by users, they're going into the field to understand how people work and live their lives.

"User insights can't predict future demand"

Unless you happen to have a crystal ball, I don't think anyone can accurately foresee future product demand. That's why it's called a prediction. I strongly believe that a deep understanding of your users will help reduce risk and increase a product's chance of success. And that's my opinion, based on 10 years of experience.

"User centered process stifles creativity"

Unless the author has expertise in all of the different user centered methodologies and processes, I'm not sure how he can make this claim. I suspect that he is lumping what he does know under the general umbrella of user centered design as a philosophy. Personally, I have a lot of experience using Contextual Design to help companies become more creative. A recent example is our work with General Motors that resulted in GM filing for 33 patents. You can read about the details in Innovation Comes from Watching Users.

 "Could you imagine Steven Spielberg starting out new film projects with intense user studies and insights?"

How is the artistic endeavor of film-making at all comparable to the creation of products that will be used by people? Of course it makes no sense to do "user studies" when starting a film project. All of the in-depth user research is done when the book or screenplay is being written. Many authors do extensive research on people, places, and history before creating anything. Works of entertainment, like movies, books,  and plays do have something in common with products: It's very very hard to predict what will be a success. The success of any kind of product depends on many factors beyond just it's design. Marketing, branding, sales strategy, pricing, distribution, manufacturing, laws and regulations, competitors, disruptive technology, and scandal can all impact the success of a product. Understanding users can help you with some of those, but it's not a magic bullet, it can't guarantee success—nothing can.

"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."

Based on what? At InContext Design, our projects always provide one or more of the following benefits to the client:  identify ways to reduce cost, make products less complicated, and find new opportunities that will provide 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."

Many user studies are not widely available. All of the work that we do for our clients is proprietary to the client and is never revealed. Why? Because they know it's a huge competitive advantage. Claiming that companies have the same insights also shows an ignorance of real user centered design processes. The real insights are derived from synthesizing the data and understanding its broader implications—not from a list of facts and observations. Those insights vary depending on the skills and experience of the people who participate in the synthesis and subsequent concept generation. If the number of insights to be gained were somehow finite, I suspect that designers would soon be out of work.

My final issue is with the use of the word "innovation".

Innovation and innovative are highly ambiguous and almost meaningless words. Innovation can come at different levels, from the high-level of business strategy to the low-level of interaction design and everything in between. The mass-consumer type of innovation from Apple and IKEA are not the only kinds of innovation. Trying to become the next Apple or IKEA is not going to happen by emulating Apple or IKEA, no matter what design process is used. Successful innovation is driven by the company itself—its vision, identity, and skills, as described in the article Corporate Identity and Innovation. 

For whatever it's worth, that's my two cents.


David B. Rondeau
Design Chair
InContext Design (





17 Feb 2011 - 4:49pm
Anthony Hepp

I couldn't agree more with your comments here, Dave.  It's a terrible proposition to make based on the evidence and logic presented. It's a bit arrogant, too...

Thank you for the response.

Anthony Hepp
Senior Designer

18 Feb 2011 - 7:53am

Hey all, 

Has anyone commented on the FastCo article?   The comments I've seen so far have all been very positive on the site.  I'd hate for all this angst to be wasted "preaching to the choir". After all, the folks reading it on the site might be the resource managers for our next projects, you know? 



18 Feb 2011 - 10:24pm

There's been a lot of great commentary on the article here; good stuff! One of my colleagues wrote a rebuttal to the FastCo. post; here’s a excerpt of what he had to say:

“First off, it’s absurd to say that the most innovative global brands don’t care about what users want.  In fact, brands care very much about what users want, because, without users and consumers, who exactly is buying these products?  The designers?  I don’t think so.

Next, Skibsted and Hansen write that “users’ insights can’t predict future demand.” They say “the demand for something fundamentally new is completely unpredictable.” On this point, we partially agree. It is true that users cannot conceptualize a product that does not exist and brands should not ask users to design products for them.  However, you should talk to users about their current behaviors and habits, as well as their values.  Through talking with real users, you can identify their pain-points, motivators, influencers and needs.  Then, the smart folks of the brand can use this information to design products that solve a problem, alter a habit or meet a need.

The authors of the Co.Design article also mentions that world events are unpredictable and, therefore, demand is unpredictable.  While world events are unpredictable, users are not.  At the core, you are what you are.  Your attitudes may be affected by events, but you will look for ways to manifest your attitudes and behaviors.  Learning about users’ behaviors and habits allows brands to create products and messaging that communicate appropriately to user needs, which drives demand. Demand prediction is much more likely to be accurate with this behavioral information than just forming hypotheses in a vacuum.

Skibsted and Hansen’s go on to assert that “user-centered processes stifle creativity” and lead to “same-ness.” I just don’t see it.  Talking to users doesn’t stifle creativity.  Instead, it focuses designers on innovation that solves problems, supports or changes behavior and/or meets a need. The end product may be innovative, but it will also be adoptable, usable and buyable.  And at the end of the day, aren’t companies in the business of making money?

Skibsted and Hansen want to believe in the existence of an idealized creative person, one who lives in a world where she can create completely uninhibited, un-hindered by actual people…”

If you’re interested in reading the rest, check it out at

What do you guys think of his points? 

21 Feb 2011 - 10:25am
VUI Cloud

This reminds me of an article I read in the nineties about how Simon & Garfunkel got their start in the music business in the sixties.

In the article, Paul Simon recalled walking into an agency in NYC and playing some songs on his acoustic right in the guy’s office. After hearing songs that have since sold millions worldwide, the guy looks at them, tells them the public is not ready for folk/rock, opens the door for them and asks them to leave.

Simon persists and tells the guy that he understands that folk/rock is relatively new for the time but he thinks the public is ready for something different and that they will like the catchy lyrics, strong melody lines and upbeat tempo, if given a chance to hear it. The PR guy abruptly grabs him by his jacket collar, stares him in the eye and says, “son I’m public and I don’t like it”. Then he kicks them out.

Fortunately for their millions of fans, Simon and Garfunkel decided they would not change their brand or approach and kept knocking on doors until the right ones opened.

As one of many such examples out there, this clearly shows how very often the administers and gatekeepers of brand and/or company resources often confuse being in touch with themselves and their own perceptions with being in touch with their customers, users and the public at large.

Studies and surveys, while helpful tools on the other hand, are not always reliable indicators of user opinion and perception. In fairness to the PR guy here, listening to “Mrs. Robinson” played by an unknown duo in a quiet room is not the same as listening to it played by established, world-famous superstars live at Madison Square Garden. Ask the same audience member what they think of the same song or concept under each circumstance and you are often likely to get two different opinions. That’s why asking a potential user what they would like to see in a product is not always as insightful as it seems.

I think designers, like artists and musicians, have to know their audience, their market and their brand goals.

User input, feedback and studies are helpful tools to have at hand and should be used to gain knowledge, awareness and insight into a problem. At the end of the day though, it’s up to creative visionaries armed with the courage of conviction to use that combination of knowledge and creative talent to bring about meaningful, non-trivial advances.

Knowing their audience well (possibly even better than the audience knew themselves) is what put Simon and Garfunkel in a position to try something new back then. Real change though, came from conviction and following through with the kind of creativity, confidence and tenacity that made them walk out of this guy’s office and on to eventual fame and fortune.

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