Research is NOT “asking customers what they want”

What do users want?

It seems like a simple question when trying to build a new product: you should design what people want. To do that, you need to know what they want — so you do research. You find your users and you ask them what they want. Then you go and make what they told you they need. Right?

No, unfortunately it does not work that way. When you ask someone what they want, the answer they’ll give will be what they think you want to hear. Or one that reflects what they think they want. But since they will never want anything they can’t imagine; you end up limiting the scope of your ideas to the imagination of others!

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

- Steve Jobs

Does that mean that doing research is useless or not mandatory? No, not at all. All I am implying that we often do it the wrong way. For instance, creating a few design options, showing them to a group of users, and asking which one they prefer. Or sitting in a focus group and asking people if a particular feature will be useful.

“What’s your greatest weakness?”

“What would you like us to improve in our product?”

“What other features do you need?”

Do these questions seem familiar? Have you actually ever got anything except useless answers out of direct questions like these?

“The trouble with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say”

— David Ogilvy

If the users have not actually tried to use your designs, they’ll base their comments on surface UI elements. Such input often contrasts strongly with real world experience.

Personal beliefs should never become the primary decision criteria for creating the future of your product. If people claim they would buy more from ecommerce sites that offer video tours, it does not mean you should rush to implement video on your site! The world is littered with failed businesses that banked on such desires of their audience towards hypothetical products and services. As UX designers, don’t do research to get ready-to-implement solutions, like: “I want a hamburger menu here!” If you want to truly solve problems, don’t force users to design for you. That’s your job.

So, what should designers do? Understand what the user is trying to do on a higher level. Your users are there to accomplish something, not use your pet feature. What are the tasks they are trying to accomplish? What are the biggest pains and challenges with these tasks? What motivates them? Center the conversation around these topics, not features and functionality. Watching their behavior is more revealing than listening to what they have to say. Observe their lifestyle, desires and needs, and from that — combined with your vision — you create something for consumers that they don’t even know they need yet.

If you are going to create something disruptive and breakthrough, you will have to stop seeking comfort in pseudo validation and rely on your intuition, judgement and imagination. To have imagination, you must own an unusual level of self-confidence and creativity. Apple’s success is largely attributed to their approach to design — unhinged from the constraints of consumer input. Many believe this has given engineers the environment required to deliver innovations and products Apple is famous for. When people are delighted by how a brand can make their lives just a little bit better — or a little bit more fun, that’s when they start creating a connection with that brand.

“If I went to a group of consumers and asked them if I should sell a $4 cup of coffee, what would they have told me?”

- Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks

Designer, Growth Marketer & Product Leader