Don’t Ask Users What They Want!

As Human Computer Interaction as a research field is receiving more and more recognition in Germany my collages and me, as members of the Intelligent User Interfaces Group at OFFIS, are more often approached when it comes to developing novel user interfaces or findings innovative solutions for industry partners.

Usually, the idea is that we conduct interviews with (potential) end users and ask them what they want to come up with a innovate ideas. While this may work in some occuasions, I believe that this naïve approach misses a few important points. I will try to elaborate my view in the following:

Most people cannot think outside the box

With his famous quote “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse”. Henry Ford wanted to say that customers cannot clearly express their needs. What people actually want is getting fast and cheap from A to B with little maintenance and overhead. Most people are not able to imagine a car, if all they know are horse and carriage.

Instead try understanding their problems

Roger L. Cauvin points out that instead of asking users want they want it is more important focus on their problems by asking the right questions and interpreting answers carefully. Sometimes, he argues, it may even be better to ask no question at all but just observe and listen to your users.

Go into detail and then envision perfect solution

Frankie Johnson suggests to do that by going into detail and ask what people dislike about current practices (e.g. horses are time consuming, smelly, and may at times act unpredictably). He believes that talking about people’s dislike and then asking how a perfect carriage looks like would have resulted into the answer “a carriage without horse”.

Serendipity & Being Prepared

In addition, I believe that serendipity – the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident – plays another important role. A famous example is the serendipitous discovery of Penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming, who, returning from holiday, found bacteria cultures having been killed by dishes Penicillium contamination. However, “by accident” may be misleading. Most people without the scientific background of Alexander Fleming would not have recognized the importance of that observation. Thus, I believe, that it is important to “go pregnant” with an problem and keep your eyes open for things that might fit that problem.

Get out there!

Helen Walters gives a few tips on increasing the chance of serendipitous findings, including to get outside the office, build prototypes instead of talking about the idea, and explore instead of execute. Further, it is important to not expect results too soon, which is really a tragic insight given that most work today is driven by deadlines and milestones.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Ask Users What They Want!”

  1. I totally agree with the above. People keep mixing between want, need and problem. Mr Henry Ford’s quote is really famous but completely irrelevant. We should not ask people about needs and wants, this will be a mistake. We only need to ask about problems and focus only in problems that the customer is willing to pay in order to solve them. These will be the real problems. Understanding the right problems will lead us to the solutions. The problem is to get from A to B, as you mentioned and cars, horses, wings,… all of them are good solutions.

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