User Centered Innovation is Dead

By Brian Ling February 5, 2010

With a cheeky little link to Tom Kelly’s The Art of Innovation, Roberto Verganti (author of Design Driven Innovation) suggests in not so many words that User Centered Innovation, IDEO’s claim to fame, is dead.

While tech experts were busy commenting on the qualities of the iPad, what struck me was the level of excitement that the event created. On Tuesday, the day before the product was unveiled, a Web search for “Apple tablet” produced more than 17 million links! On Wednesday, hordes of people attended the news conference remotely. Everyone was anxiously waiting for Apple’s interpretation of what a tablet is.

This was validation of Apple’s peculiar innovation process: Insights do not move from users to Apple but the other way around. More than Apple listening to us, it’s us who listen to Apple.

This contradicts the conventional management wisdom about innovation. In fact, one of the mantras of the past decade has been user-centered innovation (cheeky link here!): Companies should start their innovation process by getting close to users and observe them using existing products to understand their needs.

I disagree with this approach for these kinds of efforts. User-centered innovation is perfect to drive incremental innovation, but hardly generates breakthroughs. In fact, it does not question existing needs, but rather reinforces them, thanks to its powerful methods.

With the iPad Apple has not provided an answer to market needs. It has made a proposal about what could fit us and what we could love. It’s now up to us to answer whether we agree.

I fully agree with Robert’s analysis. As I always say, consumers are horrible in telling you what they like. Listening to them gets you as far as optimizing your design, true innovation requires critical insight and a leap of faith. Apple is just so good at doing that.

Astute readers would remember a similar discussion on this issue. In my previous post, “Don Norman believes Technology comes first, User Needs Last. What?“, I concluded with:

So yes, Technology first, but if you put needs last or if technology does not collaborate or “handshake” with consumer needs, what is the point of being first?

So how is this different from this discussion?

Basically, in that earlier discussion, I indicated that Design should be used as a means to link innovation primers, in this case technology, to users. This makes technology meaningful, and a likely success. In this discussion and in Tom Kelly’s book, the idea of going to users to look for these innovation primers, which I’m sure you are convinced, is not always the right way to go if you want to challenge paradigms.

The game is changing; it is no longer enough to make things better. We have to rethink products to really make a difference.

Via: HBR

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Brian Ling

Brian is the Founder and Design Director at Design Sojourn, a Design Led Innovation Consultancy. He is a multi-award winning design leader, and specialises in strategic design and innovation programs that drive successful organisations. Brian’s 20-year career in design, driven through a deep understanding of human behavior, spans over multiple domains such as consumer electronics, government, healthcare, non-profit agencies, hospitality, F&B, retail, online solutions and best in class service experiences.

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34 Comments on "User Centered Innovation is Dead"

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The point is to ask users “How or Why” they do something no what they want. Really? This is not insight, or even commentary on how user centered innovation is dead, it’s just someone’s rant because they want to be right. Steve Jobs leads great products, not because he asks people what they want … Apple looks at what people DO, and make it better


The basic needs and wants of consumer does not change. A consumer may not a scientist or an analyst to provide an innovative means of resolving his problems. Many a times, he may not even think of upgrading the tools but looking for an alternative tool that makes his life easier.

Hence asking a user on innovation may not be useful.

It is the responsibility of the designer to come out with a tool with an economical technology and price to resolves the problem.

David Kellmeyer
btw, have we crowned the ipad the next big thing. I’m not sure it won’t flop, I have one and I use my iphone all day, every day. I use my iPad … hmm … when friends come over and I want to show them I have an ipad. So, maybe this gets to the larger point. I know what I enjoy and want technology to help me do it better, easier, more often (good ole incremental improvement) … I guess in my personal life i’m not looking for technology game changers that ask me to invest more of my… Read more »
David Kellmeyer
User-Centered Design or Innovation is not about asking someone what they want but rather seeking to understand not just what they need but also what they aspire to. One must take the time to find the fringe users and then have the time are creativity to get to not what they are doing but what they would like to be doing. Often they don’t just come out and tell you this word for word, rather this must be interpreted by the designer. The old saying goes “you have 2 eyes, 2 ears, and one mouth use them in proportion”. Well… Read more »

One final thought, I was reminded what a old friend(now departed from this mortal coil)told me long ago that “many look but few see, many listen but few hear, many talk but only a few act.” So to me how well we do all of these things is that makes the difference in the outcome. Do this well, you are rewarded, do it with pre conceived notions or a big ego and you get…crap.

Dan Zollman

Also, on a side note, it is not a new tool or strategy to reject old tools and strategies. If someone were to argue that user-centered innovation should be done away with because we now understand innovation better–they better explain what it is that’s going to replace user-centered tools. I’ll hold off on continuing this point, though, because I haven’t read Verganti’s book.

Dan Zollman
DT – then perhaps we are in need of a clear distinction between user-centered incremental innovation and innovation that is driven by user-centered principles. (By the way, it may even be a mistake to say that there is any innovation that isn’t user-centered–there’s only innovation that is more or less sufficient or insufficient in meeting users’ needs.) Zippyflounder’s argument about the Wii is a perfect example. And Creative? Creative’s mp3 players are fundamentally no different from iPods with regard to serving needs. I know plenty of people who have bought Creative mp3 players because of of the RAM, battery life,… Read more »

DT: Let us look a the Wii, the market space was not growing much so the question was asked, what consumer base is not in play the answer was non gamers. The non gamers were asked “why” and the answer came back to the learning curve of the controls and the primary focus on shoot em ups and the like. The answer is the Wii a non traditional IO that was a direct responce to the needs and wants of the un-served market.


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