User Interaction Designers Square Off Online


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There has been an interesting exchange online recently on the merits of User-Centered Design.

As far as I can tell, the exchange started with Fast Company’s Co.Design’s article titled “User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and Ikea (”

Some quick quotes from this article are “At Apple, we don’t waste our time asking users, we build our brand through creating great products we believe people will love”, “If users can’t tell a company what to do, what should companies do instead? The best brands are all guided by a clear vision for the world, a unique set of values, and a culture that makes them truly unique and that no user insights could ever change” and “But can’t you create radical new products based on what the user wants? Why do the most innovative brands not care about what users want?”

Subsequently, the Interaction Design Association (IXDA) blogged on the article with “Fastco Design article: more hating on UCD” ( And a few quotes here are “Being focused on users and handing design over to users are very different things, and I imagine that very few companies/products are actually user-led in the way described in the article”, “I think they may be mixing research in general with UCD practices. It’s obviously a title that’s suppose to get a knee jerk reaction from the community” and “Of course companies know what’s best for the common folk. That’s why there are so many failed products. Interesting to see IKEA mentioned in the same breath as Apple too.”

I think the discussions have been healthy and both sides make good points. The good folks at IXDA and User Insight were kind enough to post my take on the subject (see below). I tried to sign in and post a comment on Fast Company’s blog also but was unable to. I get this sometimes on certain web sites and ironically, my Apple Safari browser is usually the culprit (or not, depending on which OS/Browser world you live in!).

My take here (

The core issues in this discussion remind me of an article I read in the nineties about how Simon & Garfunkel got their start in the music business in the sixties.

In the article, Paul Simon recalled walking into an agency in NYC and playing some songs on his acoustic right in the guy’s office. After hearing songs that have since sold millions worldwide, the guy looks at them, tells them the public is not ready for folk/rock, opens the door for them and asks them to leave.

Simon persists and tells the guy that he understands that folk/rock is relatively new for the time but he thinks the public is ready for something different and that they will like the catchy lyrics, strong melody lines and upbeat tempo, if given a chance to hear it. The PR guy abruptly grabs him by his jacket collar, stares him in the eye and says, “son I’m public and I don’t like it”. Then he kicks them out.

Fortunately for their millions of fans, Simon and Garfunkel decided they would not change their brand or approach and kept knocking on doors until the right ones opened.

As one of many such examples out there, this clearly shows how very often the administers and gatekeepers of brand and/or company resources often confuse being in touch with themselves and their own perceptions with being in touch with their customers, users and the public at large.

Studies and surveys, while helpful tools on the other hand, are not always reliable indicators of user opinion and perception. In fairness to the PR guy here, listening to “Mrs. Robinson” played by an unknown duo in a quiet room is not the same as listening to it played by established, world-famous superstars live at Madison Square Garden. Ask the same audience member what they think of the same song or concept under each circumstance and you are often likely to get two different opinions. That’s why asking a potential user what they would like to see in a product is not always as insightful as it seems.

I think designers, like artists and musicians, have to know their audience, their market and their brand goals.

User input, feedback and studies are helpful tools to have at hand and should be used to gain knowledge, awareness and insight into a problem. At the end of the day though, it’s up to creative visionaries armed with the courage of conviction to use that combination of knowledge and creative talent to bring about meaningful, non-trivial advances.

Knowing their audience well (possibly even better than the audience knew themselves) is what put Simon and Garfunkel in a position to try something new back then. Real change though, came from conviction and following through with the kind of creativity, confidence and tenacity that made them walk out of this guy’s office and on to eventual fame and fortune.

Daniel O'Sullivan
CEO, innovator and technologist in software engineering and product development. Created and implemented Adaptive Technology and Fastrack Software products that have optimized over 1.5 Billion self-service phone calls worldwide and saved clients over $100M to date. Electrical Engineering undergrad with a Masters in Computer Science. Lucent/Bell Labs alumni. Winner of worldwide eco-design project and received several patents. Currently CEO of Software Technology Partners.Focus: Business Development, Technology Partnering, Mobile, Web and Cloud Technologies and Human-Computer Interaction.


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