Apple, UCD, and Innovation – A Guest Post by Travis Bowles

This guest post is in response to the article User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs: Just ask Apple and IKEA at fastcodesign.com

From the article:

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.”

I’d argue that someone at Apple noticed how Microsoft had been building tablets since 2002 and hadn’t quite gained traction. Apple tends to step in and refine the work of others, often picking the perfect moment in time when the capabilities of a technology and users’ willingness to accept a technology intersect. The question of how they choose those moments is hotly debated – if it was more apparent to the world, their competition wouldn’t always be following them into the market, often AFTER pioneering the first generation of the market Apple dominates (see Microsoft with tablets, Creative Labs with the iPod, Xerox with GUIs).

I believe there is a common misunderstanding that User Centered Design(UCD) is asking users what they need and building it. If that were UCD, then we’d just let marketing and sales departments design products with the feature lists provided by customers and, in many cases, that would be a sufficient source of information to drive an evolutionary product design process. However, I would argue that proper full-spectrum user centered design *leads* to revolutionary product designs. The problem lies in the assumption that user centered design is building what the user thinks he/she wants.

Jonathan Ive is fond of a quote from Henry Ford that I use in explaining the differences between customer feedback and user experience research – “If I had asked people what they needed, they would have said faster horses.” I think this sums up the Apple philosophy that they are creating things so new and cool that the future users wouldn’t even know what technologies were available, let alone be able to assemble them into new category of device. The mistake here is believing that the only tool available to the UCD practitioner is asking users “what should we build for you?”

1910 Model T Ford, Salt Lake City, Utah

What Ive ignores is that, although Henry Ford didn’t rely on potential customers to define his product, he did learn about their needs and try to accommodate them. The original Model Ts were designed to run on ethanol for the benefit of farmers who could make their own fuel from the land (as they did for their horses), and they were designed for the simple servicing by owners in the field (as they did their other farm equipment), in contrast to some more expensive competitors. He didn’t ask his users to design his product but he informed his designs by learning about their environment, goals, and needs.

On a smaller scale, I’ve seen failures of this sort during user testing, when some participants will offer direct design advice, proposing that you place this button here, add this feature there. A lot of researchers get frustrated and dismiss this sort of input, correctly asserting that the participant is not here to redesign the UI. I do, however, find follow-up questions on these design suggestions often produce interesting data points concerning user expectations, needs and even mental models of the system. I wonder sometimes if some designers and researchers overreact because they feel their value is undermined when they acknowledge any value in the ideas of potential users.

One last thought I have is that the new crop of development-centric, massively networked products presents new challenges to the value of UCD. Startups have always moved quickly, and they’ve always run the risk of losing a race to release a product if they spend too much time “polishing” their product before an initial release. As a result, user experiences and feature depth were usually poor to start with and improved over time as the user base increased. The major changes in user experience were made while the number of users forced to adjust was still small, and by the time wide scale adoption was realized, changes generally settled into enhancements and logical upgrades (largely speaking software here, but Consumer Electronics also fits).

However, recently, to be successful a product needs to become ubiquitous almost upon release. Between social networks and newly established cycles of technology obsolescence,* there is little time to build up a base of users to try the early versions of your product before widespread acceptance. One might assume this would motivate companies to work harder to use UCD to create good designs before that initial release, but this has not been the strategy applied by the biggest winners. Instead, I believe successful companies are setting out to provide one or a handful of killer features, often wrapped in a barely serviceable user experience, to as many people as quickly as possible. Rather than risk missing out on a key moment, they skip the needs gathering and early stage user research and take their best shot instead. If they are successful and widely adopted, the reasoning goes, they can go back and improve the experience later with direct user feedback.

Of course, this approach runs into a lot of practical issues. For instance, there is an installed user base who may rebel when confronted with change (although if you provide an irreplaceable device/service, people will complain but still be your customer). Additionally, once the company is successful, it has the dual role of providing an improved future experience and maintaining the current experience, splitting resources and attention. For this reason, companies often find it hard to actually follow through on step 2 of the plan where step one is “get customers” and step two is “make product better for customers.” In this phase, iterative refinements of the product design get bogged down in new features, and there is no time for conducting full-spectrum user research.

Based on these factors, I do wonder, outside of giant corporations or products with decade-spanning development (such as aircraft, medical technologies or anything the government watches over), are we likely to see a rapid decline in user research in innovative product designs, and in early product development for most products? My intuition is that we will see an increase in demand for practitioners capable of research, design and implementation, but with less specialized training in user research and user centered design. The only “concrete” evidence I can back it up with is my anecdotal observation that the majority of interesting opportunities for user research I’ve found have been specifically requesting a developer/engineer with the ability to conduct research or complete designs in addition to implementing them.

* Products such as netbooks, iPads, iPods and smartphones are as expensive as appliances we used to expect 10+ years of service from. The average washing machine is less than an iPad, but you can expect the iPad to be out of date in ~ 2 years. People would be up in arms if their washing machines (or even microwaves, at 1/4 the price) stopped performing after 2 years.

Travis Bowles, M.S., is a usability consultant in San Francisco specializing in enterprise software, novel consumer electronics, and web interfaces.

(post photo credit: flickr user raneko)

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9 Responses to Apple, UCD, and Innovation – A Guest Post by Travis Bowles

  1. Visitor Centric February 25, 2011 at 8:20 am #

    Apple, UCD, and Innovation – A Guest Post by Travis Bowles: This guest post is in response to… http://goo.gl/fb/bwq6L

  2. George Howard Allen February 25, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    Apple, UCD, and Innovation – A Guest Post by Travis Bowles | the <b>…</b> http://goo.gl/fb/DFP50

  3. georgehallenga February 25, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    Apple, UCD, and Innovation – A Guest Post by Travis Bowles | the <b>…</b> http://goo.gl/fb/DFP50

  4. Domenico Polimeno February 26, 2011 at 3:48 am #

    #Apple, #UCD, and #Innovation http://bit.ly/f1UDg8

  5. Aditya Gujaran February 27, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    RT @hfblog: Apple, UCD, and Innovation – A Guest Post by Travis Bowles http://bit.ly/eGkoAP

  6. mikehopeux March 7, 2011 at 3:21 am #

    Interesting view on Apple, UCD & Innovation http://bit.ly/gPiJAg #ux #ucd

  7. Anthony March 13, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

    Interesting #humanfactors article and rebuttal http://t.co/EKQadUY

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