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Users Don’t Know What They Want (Talk to Them Anyway)

Posted on: 05/14/2013

Ever heard some version of the following?

“Did you know Apple never did any user research?! And, we all love our iWhatevers…ergo, user research is bogus!”

To the best of my evidence-surfacing abilities, I’ve never been able to find a direct quote from Steve Jobs or Apple completely denouncing user research. Yet it seems that the above sentiment is a fairly common one.

Maybe people are under the impression that Apple is anti-research because of Jobs’ candidness in talking about why he didn’t take product development direction from users:

“Customers can’t anticipate what the technology can do. They won’t ask for things that they think are impossible. But the technology may be ahead of them. If you happen to mention something, they’ll say, ‘Of course, I’ll take that. Do you mean I can have that, too?’ It sounds logical to ask customers what they want and then give it to them. But they rarely wind up getting what they really want that way.”

In other words: Users don’t know what they want.

Phillip Schiller (Apple’s SVP of Worldwide Marketing) echoed Jobs’ opinion in his testimonial during the Apple vs. Samsung trial:

“We don’t use any customer surveys, focus groups, or typical things of that nature. That plays no role in the creation of the products.”

Again, I’ll take this as: Users don’t know what they want.

Jobs wanted (and Apple wants) to create great products. But Jobs didn’t believe true innovation would come from sitting in a room with a few users bribed with fifty bucks and some diet coke and asking them, “Hey, what do you want me to do next?”

Neither do I. That’s not what I mean when I talk about conducting “user research.” What I do mean by “user research”—and what I believe to be a vital part the design process—is surfacing needs. And you do that through direct contact with the people who actually use your stuff, through empathy, and by understanding who those users are—not by asking them what they want.

Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have told me faster horses.” Tom Webster’s reply to this commonly quoted argument in his recent post rings true to the value of surfacing needs over simply asking users what they want:

“I can assure you that if a competent practitioner in my field asked Ford’s customers what they wanted, the answer would have been ‘to get places faster.'”

It’s not our job as user researchers to ask people what they want and then go off and create what they’ve asked for. It’s our job to identify the needs behind those desires ourselves, as—and even before—they exist, and then fill them. First-hand contact with users is the most powerful way to identify those gaps.

William Gribbons articulates the greater picture perfectly in words that I wish were my own:

“We must be guided by a focus on real and unmet human need. We cannot expect users to explicitly define this need, but through our close contact with them, we have a front-row vantage point for identifying opportunities.”

Talking to users to learn about what makes them tick—what motivates them, what kind of goals they have, what factors affect and persuade them—allows us to design products and experiences that will delight people and compel them to act.

Observing users with existing products and prototypes—witnessing behaviors firsthand—allows us to understand frustrations and reactions better than drawing our own conclusions out of context.

So, yes, users may not know what they want. But that doesn’t mean users aren’t worth talking to. Direct contact with the people you’re designing for is the best lens for identifying opportunities to create great products and experiences, and in turn, long-lasting relationships with customers.

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