Why the user is not always right

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“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
– Henry Ford

This is a much used (and misused) quote from Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford motor car company. Now as it turns out Henry Ford probably never actually these uttered words, but fortunately I’m writing an article, not an academic essay and historical inaccuracies aside I hope you’ll agree that it’s a very thought provoking quote. Here’s another one, this time from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs quote, "It's not the customer's job to know what they want"

Steve Jobs certainly knew that the user is not always right

Users don’t know what’s good for them

You see both Steve Jobs and Henry Ford knew a very important lesson. A lesson that a lot of designers, researchers and business folk haven’t yet grasped: Customers and users don’t know what’s good for them. And I’m not just talking about when it comes to innovative new products and services, I’m talking about in general. Users don’t know what’s good for them full stop. Yep, you heard it right. The user is not always right. In fact, most of the time the user is just plain wrong.

Of course it’s not the user’s fault. How can we expect users to have the answers when they are so blinkered by their own limited exposure to a domain and by their singular view of a design problem? Let’s not kid ourselves. Users are not designers. Most of the time they are not even domain experts, and even if they do know a domain inside out, they invariably lack the expertise to convert that domain knowledge into good design solutions. Yet time and time I come across the expectation that we only need to ask the users and they will miraculously give us all the answers. We’ll ask the users what they need. We’ll ask the users which features are most important to them. We’ll ask the users how the site should be organised. We’ll ask the users what should be on the homepage.

Let’s just ask the users…

This dangerous culture of, “let’s just ask the users”, reminds me of a particular episode of The Simpsons. I like to borrow all my best life advice from the Simpsons, like Homer’s advice that, “If at first you don’t succeed, gives up”. In an episode called Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Homer finds out that he has a long lost half-brother called Herb. Herb just happens to be the head of Powell motors, a big US car manufacturer and with sales of Powell cars diminishing Herb asks Homer to help design a car for the average, ordinary American. A car for the average Joe, designed by an average Joe (well, less than average in the case of Homer). Herb tells his car designers to give Homer free rein over the design of the car, to incorporate all of his ideas, no matter how crazy. Of course the resulting Homer’s car (see image below) makes the Fiat Multipla look like a great design. It’s terrible because it’s a car designed by and for Homer, and designed by someone that isn’t a designer. Now hopeful your users have a bit more sense than Homer (no guarantee there though), but I think that the story still conveys a valuable lesson: Users don’t know what’s good for them, even fictional users!

Homer's car

Homer’s car – a demonstration of what can happen when you blindly follow user suggestions

It’s not the customer’s job to design

You see it’s the responsibility of designers, not the users to come up with great solutions that solve user problems. And when I say designers, I don’t just mean someone with ‘Designer’ in their job title; I mean the entire product team. A developer can be a designer, just as much as a UX designer can be a designer. A user on the other hand makes for a very poor designer and to expect otherwise is just plain lazy design. It’s the job of designers and the product team to understand users, to identify their needs, their problems, their hopes, their desires and their dreams. To create elegant, useful and usable design solutions that meet those needs, even if like the model T Ford and the iPad they are needs that users didn’t even realise that they had.

Doing it for the kids

As a parent of two small children I like to think of the relationship between designers and users as being a bit like the relationship between a parent and their children (or child). As a parent you put your children at the centre of your child-centred-design universe. Your children always come first, from deciding what to do on a rainy day, to thinking about what food to buy for the week. Everything you do is based around the needs of your children. But what you don’t do is let the children tell you what to do, because they will try, believe me, they will try. Ultimately you’re the boss. You’re the grown up and you know best (at least this is the illusion you want to create). This should be your approach to users. By this I don’t mean that you should treat your users like children (unless of course they really are children), but that you should take the time to understand them, work out what is best for them, take them out for fun days at the seaside, but never blindly follow their demands. Of course you should absolutely include users in the design process, get their feedback, test out ideas and prototypes, get their input, but never forget that you are the design expert, not them. You are the one driving the design process, not them.

I want to leave you with one last quote, this time from Alan Cooper, UX guru, father of Visual Basic and author of the classic book The Inmates Are Running The Asylum (still a great read). The quote is taken from a chat at a Microsoft conference (a link to the video can be found in the see also section below, it’s well worth 3 minutes of your life) in which Alan talks about why users are not a good source of software. Here is what Alan Cooper has to say:

“You’ve got to have software designed by experts, software is too complicated and too big and too costly and too difficult to let users have anything to do with it.”
– Alan Cooper

I think that Alan is being a little bit facetious when he says that users shouldn’t have ‘anything to do with it’, but I hope that you can see Alan’s point, and I for one couldn’t agree more.

See also