Companies should lead their users, not the other way around.

So say Jens Skibsted and Rasmus Hansen in their recent post, User-Led Innovation Can't Create Breakthroughs, on Fast Company's Co.Design blog. They’re exactly right, but for all the wrong reasons, which highlight a wider problem of the misunderstanding of interaction design and the field of UX.

The thesis of the article is that the very idea of a user-led approach is fundamentally flawed, that listening to users is harmful, and that a user-centric design focus creates sameness and stifles creativity and innovation. The article quotes "design team members" inside Apple who shun user-centeredness: "It’s all bullshit and hot air created to sell consulting projects and to give insecure managers a false sense of security." The article also attributes that belief to IKEA: "IKEA designers don’t use user studies or user insights to create their products. When I asked them why, they said 'We tried and it didn’t work.'"

The Co.Design article has caused quite a stir in interaction design and UX circles. So what is all the fuss about, and why does it matter?

User-Centered Does Not Equal What the User Wants

It's difficult to know which people in which positions at Apple and IKEA were the sources for the Co.Design article. It’s easier to empathize when you understand the context of the viewpoints expressed. If you work in an environment dominated by focus groups and interviews that generate wish lists and "user insights" that tell you what the user thinks you should do, then its easier to see just how the authors formed this opinion.

But UX professionals already know the risks associated with improper research methods and the dubious value of such information. This approach of taking raw findings and applying them directly to designs or products is called user-led design, and its weakness is in failing to use the skills of experts to verify and extract user needs.

Alan Cooper sums up this point in a 2006 interview he links to in his response (If users could lead innovation, they wouldn't be users) to the Co.Design article:

"What would a user know about behavior [...] users don't know! You can't get blood from a stone!" He passionately responds to a developer's question regarding finding out what users want through iteration, and gives this great analogy: "[Doctor], I Broke my arm, the bone is sticking out, it hurts like hell, but I find that if I hold it in this position the pain is at a local minimum. So would you please duct tape it to my body in this position so it doesn't hurt every time I take a step?"

"When they come to you [...] with bones sticking out of their body it means there is a problem and you have to bring your expertise to bear and analyze the problem and come up with a solution."

The doctor listens to the patient, analyzes the problem that is being presented, and uses specialized, expert knowledge to provide a solution that will fix the broken arm.

This Process Is User-Centered, But Not User-Led or User-Driven

Cooper’s analogy highlights perfectly the differences between being user-centered and user-led. Being user-centered requires the involvement of experts who focus on the user as a person. Interaction designers listen and observe, and apply their knowledge about the behavior of people and their psychology, especially when they interact with digital products and services. Being user-centered means understanding a problem and the users, analyzing user behavior and listening to their wants, then translating this into needs that drive a creative solution to the problem. Being user-led or user-driven, on the other hand, means responding to user feedback without applying the filters of analysis and translation. As Cooper argues, this is a fundamental abdication of design responsibility.

A Razor Sharp Focus on the End User Is What Creates Great UX

Everyone involved in the development of a product or service—including designers, developers, business leaders, and project managers—needs to have the same focus on the end user and understand that ultimately their decisions will affect the user's experience and perception.

Companies that create great products for people are user-centric. They are creative, have a strong vision, and are able to execute this vision consistently. The results are users who feel satisfied their needs are met. They feel emotionally connected, and non-users desire to own or use the product. This cannot be accomplished without skilled team members who, throughout the whole development cycle, hold a razor sharp understanding of people, and focus on creating an excellent user experience, end to end.

Rely on Your Vision, Verify With People

The Co.Design article asserts that it’s not possible to be both creative and user-centered, that the two are mutually exclusive. This not the case—they are complementary.

The MIT Media Lab must be one of the most creative places on earth. Students and alumni are responsible for innovations such as the G-Speak gestural interface found in the film Minority Report, e-reader displays, $100 laptops, and Guitar Hero. The people at MIT Media lab have a strong, clear vision for the future and are passionate about their domain. Breakthroughs happen frequently and become real-world products and technologies.

Yet their work is fundamentally about people, and is user-centered. MirrorFugue is a system being developed by Xiao Xiao and Hiroshi Ishii from the Tangible Media Group. In their paper MirrorFugue: Communicating Hand Gestures in Remote Piano Collaboration, they clearly describe a user-centered approach to design.

Starting with expert knowledge of the domain and an understanding of the associated needs, they develop a clear vision of a system that could enable remote musical learning and collaboration via telepresence. Xiao and Ishii test their ideas on real users to qualify and verify their vision. They do not ask users what they want or if they think it is a good idea, but instead gather quantitative and qualitative data to be analyzed after the fact, from which findings are extracted and fed into the next stage of development.

The user-centered nature of this work is founded just as much in the human needs driving their vision as it is in the steps the researchers have taken to test and verify. Without real needs driving the questions filtered by an expert understanding of the domain and human behavior, the solutions and conclusions drawn would not be relevant to the world and breakthroughs would not be made.

At the ustwo studio, we have our own failing ground where we allow creativity to flow unhinged, some of which we allow out into the real world as mobile applications to see what happens. In the past, this work would go out without any user-centered thinking, and it showed. Creative ideas failed because of little attention paid to usability rather than being conceptually flawed. Now our quality is higher because we apply user-centered thinking and testing during the implementation.

Working on large and complex projects for clients, ranging from financial trading systems to IPTV interfaces, we need to be a little more precise. We make sure that we always have time for discovery and conceptualization: framing the problem, understanding the business’ and users’ needs before ideating and generating lots of possible solutions. During implementation we design and build, iterating and user testing along the way. This works for us, and allows us to be both creative and user-centered.

Alan Cooper is correct; if users could lead innovation, they wouldn't be users. Kibsted and Hensen are also correct; user-led design does not create breakthroughs, and rarely creates good design solutions. However there is a fundamental difference between being user-led or user-driven, and being user centered. Complement strong vision and leadership with an expert understanding of people, along with tools and techniques to apply this knowledge through design, and it is possible to create innovative solutions and great user experiences.