Don’t Ask the User

I know it seems counterintuitive for a User Experience Designer to say, but the biggest mistake in User Experience Design (and in fact, in general product design) is to ask the user what they want.

Wait. What?

Yes, I said it: don’t ask the user what they want.

And, I’m not alone. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants like Jakob Nielson, Don Norman, Jared Spool and Alan Cooper. This is probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned in my career and it started by reading shocking comments from these “giants” in the industry. Asking users what they want leads to this:

When what you want to build is this:

Why?

Well, let’s start by thinking of it this way: if users could effectively design an excellent product, they wouldn’t be our users.

There is a large and growing body of evidence that users don’t know what they want, don’t know what the medium is capable of delivering, and are not quite incapable of imagining something new, useful, desirable, or innovative. What’s more, there is ample evidence that the users are entirely ignorant of their inabilities, yet will happily give their flawed answers with unequivocal emphasis.

But, there’s more to it.

Here are some classic examples of asking users what they want and it going wrong:

  • “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” is something Henry Ford most probably never said, but he was definitely thinking along those lines. However, on the long term, not responding to customers’ needs didn’t help the company. – Henry Ford, Innovation, and That “Faster Horse” Quote
  • The New Coke is one of the most famous research failures. Despite thousands of sip tests and countless efforts to fine-tune the taste based on the customer feedback, the New Coke was a huge disaster. “Gladwell contends that what people say they like in these tests may not reflect what they will actually buy to sit at home and drink over a week or so.” See the full story on Wikipedia.
  • The now acclaimed Aeron office chair received very low ratings in early tests. Despite the ratings, the company decided to go on with manufacturing. The rest is history: Aeron became one of the most iconic and best-selling chairs in the history of office furniture. And the irony: once the chair became famous, people started rating it much favorably.

So, Let’s Reiterate, Don’t Ask Users

But, don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying “don’t listen to users.” I’m saying don’t ask users to explain themselves. Don’t ask users to go through the cognitive rigmarole of explaining and analyzing and remembering and predicting. When we try to figure out what to create, there are three lines of questioning we should avoid asking:

  1. Don’t ask about the future
  2. Don’t ask how they’d design a feature
  3. Don’t ask users to provide their reason

Well, then, What Should We Do?

Conduct good research. Like scientists. Like researchers. Using good methodology. And, document it well.

But, that’s for another UX Update at another time.