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Innovation: A matter of pull or push?

Sara Munday

Welcome to a debate that’s been raging for a while: the supposed struggle between user-centred design vs. innovation. If you’ll excuse us having a little rant, Fjord has some fairly strong opinions on this – in fact, we think the distinction is actually facile and false. Why? Allow us to explain.

It implies that a company must choose between two complete opposites: either nurture a strong brand and vision, and thereby create a market for something totally new; or instead timidly ask your customers for permission every time you lift a finger. Surely there’s a balance to be struck here?

But perhaps even more importantly, the whole debate is a sign of a profound misunderstanding of the concepts of user insights and user-centred design.

Observation vs. Q & A

User insights is not about getting a bunch of people into a room and asking them what they think about an imaginary product or service, of a type they’ve never seen before. One of our User Insights Leads likes to quote from Henry Ford:

“If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’”

User insights is about getting out into the world and observing people, how they behave, what works for them and doesn’t, and understanding why they do the things they do. This uncovers a wellspring for innovation – to serve the unarticulated need. Unarticulated needs are the stuff that iPods, for example, are made of: I don’t think anybody asked for a portable MP3 player, but when they found that they no longer had to lug around a lot of hard media in different formats, they couldn’t live without it anymore…

Another example of observation in action from UX Magazine puts it like this:

“REI’s site featured images of the hiking boots’ soles, while the L.L.Bean site only had one view. And this, it turns out, mattered to buyers. UIE’s researchers assumed that the decision to post multiple views of the shoe was rooted in market research. But when they called REI to confirm this theory, REI’s designers told them that it was actually the photographer’s idea. This particular photographer had worked in an REI retail store and had observed many a prospective buyer turning the hiking boots over to see their treads. So, the web designers translated that in-store experience into a valuable online equivalent. That’s service design!”

Well, yes, that is service design. But it’s also real user insights – primary research based on observing behaviour rather than asking explicit questions. It requires interpretation and skill to know how to apply it and when, but when it works, it gets amazing results. This is something Fjord offers to our clients – the ability to uncover opportunities that really drive results for them.

If you have no such observation or input, you end up designing just for yourself. We see this tendency all the time in our projects. Engineers especially love to say things like, “I tend to do x, so therefore I think y idea is bad.” It is very difficult to empathise naturally with other people’s needs, desires, and passions. How could a 50-year old engineer ever be able to understand a 14-year old girl in a different country? He might be a hugely innovative thinker, but in this situation the risk is very high that it won’t work. It’s simply out of touch.

Some companies (Apple in particular, but to some extent also IKEA) design for themselves. A typical Apple employee is also a typical Apple product user. So in that sense, sometimes it’s OK to design for yourself. But in most companies there’s a difference between the profile of the people who work there, and the intended users of the company’s solutions.

Brands desperately need more self-awareness

The next step is for a company to determine whether meeting the new need makes sense within their brand ethos and vision. Would I want to buy a brand new groundbreaking digital music player from Tesco? Probably not. From Apple? Hell yeah.

Brand visions can be used to define areas of observation – to use Tesco again, they have leveraged the trust their customers have in them to create financial services and insurance solutions, for example. This makes a lot more sense for them than MP3 players. By the contrast, if Apple started putting out innovative savings accounts, I’d be pretty suspicious.

So do we put the brand first, or the customer? In fact, that’s the wrong question to ask. Both are players in successful innovations, and successful brands know their space. They can identify branches of exploration that are suitable and unsuitable to their relationships with their customers.

Prototype early and often

Despite all this, it’s always good to put products into hands early in the development process. Humans are unpredictable, and can sometimes give you great ideas that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred to you. But then of course, users’ ideas need to be measured against the priorities of the product and the brand that governs it.

There are all kinds of methods used to gather user input as the design is refined and developed. They’re often confused with one another, or conflated into one. But concept testing, usability testing, and live user benchmarking all have their place in the cycle of innovation. When the complete set of user insights tools is applied wisely, it can manage risks and measure success as well as uncover opportunities and inspire breakthrough innovations.

User-centred design isn’t about asking permission

Instead, Fjord believes user-centred design is about putting the human first in any prioritisation exercise. It’s about focusing on what people need or love to do, and making it as pleasant or straightforward as possible. It’s an interpretive process, not a pedantic one.

Ultimately, it’s about making beautiful connections between the brand, the product and the user, which is a complex but highly satisfying undertaking.

Louisa Heinrich, Group Director of Strategy, Fjord

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