User Centered Innovation is Dead
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.