Giving users what they don’t know they want

I spent many years as a product designer, in various fields.  I even had some cool inventions for consumer tools and medical devices that sadly got hung up in former employer bureaucracies.  It’s been so long though since I was heavily immersed in the world of design that I had forgotten some key principles.

Reading Juhani Risku’s clear and well-considered thoughts on Nokia’s survival brought it all back to me.  On page three of the online Register article, he makes the following point:

“There is a philosophy called Contextual Design, every designer at Nokia has been trained in it by the guru Karen Holtzblatt.  Everybody has attended her courses and got her very expensive book signed.  The idea is that you ask the users what they are doing, then design something.  If you think about Apple, they don’t ask anybody.  The idea of users as designers is a catastrophe!

It’s only relevant to evolutionary products, it’s not relevant to blue-sky products.  When you have a blue-sky product, there are no users, and so there are no users’ opinions.  We have to rely on what the desires of users are and trust the designers.” 

He’s absolutely correct, and I’m embarassed to admit that this had slipped from my thinking.  You see, I’ve been so deep in recent efforts to improve the user input and feedback experience on mobile devices that my judgment has been biased that way.

But you don’t want users directing your initial efforts.  The average customer of your products will lean toward playing within known, safe boundaries.  They may not even be cued in to what’s possible and practical.  Your best designers, however, are keenly aware.

The opinions of users are valuable for correction and refinement.  This is especially important in usability.  This is not to say that focus groups and the like are useless for front-end exploration.  Far from it.  The caveat is, however, that lead designers and engineers often need to have veto authority over user-driven marketing input.

I’ll offer an anecdote involving one of the inventions I mentioned.  Without sharing too much detail, it was a multipurpose hand tool using a mechanism I designed several years ago that no one else on the market had.  Our lead engineer was very excited by the prospect and pushed it heavily to Marketing.  I was asked to put together a presentation and was confident in the potential success.

But the marketing manager wore blinders into the meeting.  He said he knew there was a place for my new idea but feared it could cannibalize existing product.  When I pointed out that it opened up markets we weren’t even in at the time, and could therefore avoid cannibalization, he just blinked.  He was too focused on serving existing users, and couldn’t get into revolutionary mode.

Flash forward a few months.  We were falling behind on development of intellectual property.  So we held a roundtable discussion with our research and development operations around the world to brainstorm product ideas.  At one point a new marketing manager declared he wanted to buy a device known from infomercials, and apply our brand to it.  Most of us were engineers and designers and realized the product in question was so poorly-constructed that it would drag our brand down.

The engineering manager had a suggestion though.  He reminded the group of my invention, which performed the same function as the cheap suggested product but was designed to higher standards.  The marketing guy wouldn’t budge.  He already had users who knew about the inferior device.  All we had to do was license it, slap a logo on it… and avoid the risk of being revolutionary.

Thomas Edison was a huge failure.  He said so himself.  But then, he wouldn’t have been the success he became without being willing to fail… often.

Apple decided with the iPhone not to play it safe, and they’ve been reaping the reward of high risk ever since.  They’re even doing it by telling customers what they want rather than waiting to hear it and then create.

Those who succeed in markets create them rather than waiting for someone else to define and then own them.  After all, at one time no one knew they needed a radio in their car, and now you can’t sell a car without one.  Viva la revolution.


15 responses to “Giving users what they don’t know they want

  1. Juhani Risku sure has some great things to say.

    “Essentially, Nokia has forgotten how to bring innovative products to market. This is despite a rich R&D base, which has pioneered many of the innovations competitors now feature. Instead, a risk-averse bureaucracy has grown up that stifles innovation – it makes progress slow or non-existent”

    I think this is particularly poignant, considering what version number Fremantle is up to:

    “When incompetent people are managing the chain, they have the mandate but don’t have that courage. Even when we bring something to market, we’re always developing versions from 1.0 to 1.2, but not to version 3 or 4.”

    “One phrase repeatedly came up in our conversation: The Peter Principle. This is the rule by which people are promoted to their own level of incompetence. Many, but not all of Nokia’s executives have attained this goal, claims Risku.”

    I really feel like Maemo has been such a victim of this. Such a smart, talented team and they just couldn’t get the resources they needed… or something. I actually don’t know what was going on in there, but I do know that something kept quashing the aspirations of the Linux team.

    And now, honestly, Nokia have all but given up. They’re pretending that they’re going forward with MeeGo, but I see it as a hand-over of their Linux program to Intel because they just couldn’t pull it off internally.


    • Some VERY interesting thoughts!

      I hope they have not given up on MeeGo. I think it shows the best promise for them long term to go up against Android and iOS. Still have S^4 around the corner, which could be something too, but still..they *need* a decent option in place soon!!

  2. If Edison were a bit more like Tesla and others, he would learn some science and design things from nice theories, instead of wasting time in his “90% of transpiration”, which I argue was due to his little knowledge and smart.

    Maybe Nokia waiting so much for users input is somehow linke dto this kind of dumbness induced laziness?…

    • Tesla was one of my heroes, and I admit that I’m not fond of Edison as a person based on what I’ve read– but there is something to be said for “high-velocity, brute force” experimentation. A great many breakthroughs have occurred that way…

  3. I forgot to mention: I believe very much in that… Users often have no clue of what they want. A designer’s or engineer’s work is often to bring the solutions for problems users didn’t know they had. But I say that in a good way. It’s not inventing a problem… It’s making people realize they could be doing it right all that time, and they didn’t know. (Or something like that, I’m sleepy)

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  6. Actually, I think users do know what they want. What they don’t know is how they get from what’s in their head into something that makes sense to others. Companies and designers are usually able to assume what people want by looking at life differently, and from there they can make that jump to translating thought into something relevant beyond their eyes.

    Speaking of mobile, if a platform were able to footer imagination and discovery, I ak sure that users would grow into being more than a consumer, but an active participant in designing what they want.

    • re “Actually, I think users do know what they want”

      That may be true in general, but few average users/customers can anticipate novelty. The most memorable businesses are those who introduce something so unique that it had no obvious precedent. Paradigm-shattering stuff.

  7. allnameswereout

    All what Apple does is apply real-life usability to tech products. Swipe to get to a next page is like a book. Sorting stuff we do IRL too else house and administration gets mess. A pointer device is like a pointing stick from teacher, or a beamer used for presentation. A swipe not immediately stopping is like a wheel of a car. It follows physics. Cutting text is like a scissors, and pasting is like glue. Copy is like photographing. You see, even the names make sense. The iTunes on iPhone uses an quick jump on the right which works like a catalog. The list goes on and on, and this is what users want, because these things make sense because there is almost no learning curve. The learning curve which exists is familiar, it feels comfortable. So I really disagree with the assessment.

    The reason what he says doesn’t apply on revolutionary products is because there is no _apparent_ reference. There is no legacy (backwards compatibility) to support. However, this viewpoint is false, because the legacy is _human_life_ and this _always_ influences the way the user interacts. When the user has learned an inefficient way to interact they may accept it again, but once they (or a competitor) offers a more efficient paradigm the user will eventually prefer that. Ofcourse, some people stick with what they learned, and even though the device seems ideal it has its disadvantages (no car is perfect).

    What contextual design tries to solve is understand how users apply their previous experience (a combination of tech and human life experience) to a certain product (e.g. a UI). It then uses analysis to come to a status quo conclusion (and eventually, product) which will be correct for a specific target group (usually not left-handed people, disabled people who are blind, disabled people who are deaf, people with an IQ of 150, people with an IQ of 80, and so forth). Yet, for most people, the scissors will be used in the way it is intended to be used. In the right hand, no cut for example paper. Not to cut themselves (blind person), use as a weapon (IQ 80 person), or use for some genius thing I can’t come up with (IQ 150 person).

    So what Apple did was recognize a technogical advanced market (smartphones) which could have far better usability. Where did they do this before? UNIX! Its similar to what they did with Mac OS X! What they did with iPhone (and the line) is they spend tons of research on the usability (and hired some competent folks), and with Jobs being a perfectionist to that aspect, came with a viable product which seemingly is revolutionary. But it isn’t. a capacitive touchscreen is similar to fingerpainting, multi touch is like using multiple fingers on one device to interact with it (like a keyboard). They make sense, and that is why they work. They then use their marketing, secrecy, and zealots to create a viable platform. This platform is then used by developers to develop applications using a good HIG and SDK, and the users have both the tools they want (legacy, main purpose) as well as tools they might like (games etc). Meanwhile, flame anything the thing doesn’t do to death (e.g. Flash).

    Nokia on the other hand seems to abandon their products quickly, and feels the breath of its competitors. They have to deliver, but it really requires a lot of research and work to come up with a viable product. Some bugs can be fixed afterwards (like a crashing browser), but some cannot (like a broken USB port). But the reason they come with a new platform a year later, which is really a big upgrade, shows that they are not in their final 1.0 area yet (for mass consumers). We knew Maemo 5 wasn’t that, it was like 0.9, but I’d have to agree that it did bring tons of legacy features to the platform (Camera, Calendar, etc etc etc) to make it for me a viable smartphone based on Linux and open source software.

    • Introducing something novel doesn’t ipso facto means the novelty will go against user nature. Touchscreen interfaces and the associated UIs were novel at one point. The beauty is blending novelty with human nature and expectations. 😉

      Nokia’s problem is they accepted a follower position at one point and there is no way to catch up in this industry. You HAVE to lead.

      • allnameswereout

        A follower position in the usability aspect.

        Not in the tech aspect!! Smartphones, in general, had cameras before iPhone users accepted that they didn’t have a good one. These users downplay these shortcomings on forums, but once the feature is there its suddenly great. Seriously, I’ve seen this countless times. Cut/paste, camera, 3G — you name it. What they argue however is that these tech deficiencies are worth the hassle because of the platform (end solution of hardware and software).

        What I believe we are seeing is Apple catching up in the tech aspect, and corporations such as Nokia (they’re not alone!) catching up in the usability area. With Android, and Qt on embedded devices (with all kind of embedded frameworks) we see *NIX catching up in the embedded UI-based end user markets. Don’t forget MeeGo is not merely for Nokia smartphones. It is a base for tons of embedded UI-based products. Tablets, netbooks, and apparently also cars. Whats next? Digital wallpaintings? Already running Linux… 🙂

        Anyway, Apple got known among consumers not with iMac or iBook or iPhone or Newton or any of that stuff. It was iPod. That was their first embedded consumer device which was a big success. If you look at the innovations of Nextstep you can even recognize its leading role in usability; Jobs is really good at this stuff. That, and marketing… 😛 heck he got away without camera on phone, without 3G, with DRM, with sensor to read if device got wet (has its flaws)…

  8. I’ll hijack this high quality comments section here and ask a related question: isn’t the problem not about giving users what they know or not they wanted or not, but giving developers what they needed?

    Maybe Nokia didn’t see the need to bring much changes to their system until other better better platforms came about. And maybe the same goes for RIM… Not only Apple introduced better development tools, but the store made it better to distribute applications. Someone should have come up with an “apt of Symbian” a long time ago. I have never seen a really nice site to get Java phone apps… Most look like those crackpot Chinese MP3 download sites full of ads.

    Android came later with the same nice tools. Nokia did start to see the light with the N770, but it wasn’t something “for the masses” yet. The strategy on the long run was first buying Symbian and Qt. It’s only now that we are going to see these decisions bear fruit.

    I hear a lot of complaints for Nokia “ditching” Maemo, and now also about Symbian^3 “borning dead” because after Symbian^4 arrives next year it will “ditch Symbian^3″… And Symbian itself will be “ditched” in favor of MeeGo… I think people are missing the point here. With the Qt based development the underlying system will not matter so much. Python based programming is another area I think there is a lot of feature.

    How much is Nokia really doing things wrong, and how much are we failing to see what the actual path is, and wishing we had already passed through changes that need their time? And how much are all the companies not lagging behind each others, but behind the consumers themselves? And behind _developer’s_ expectations and needs?…

    • allnameswereout

      The power of APT is that it makes life easy if you are able to control it. In order to control APT, you need to know how to use the CLI utilities or use a GUI. The GUIs I tried aren’t to write home about, but this is so hard to do right, that the one in Maemo 5 is acceptable for me (I don’t use the Ubuntu ones). Another powerful aspect is that it is really friendly on dependencies. While browsing or you easily get an overview on relevant aspect. But it isn’t friendly for aunt tilly; it is for power users and developers. This is akin to say Cydia.

      The App Store is less than that, yet more. It is a browser frontend to applications (free and pay) the user can easily install. The information is abstracted, and the seller of the application is encouraged to write a good description. Then theres the sorting on popularity, rating system, and other circus aspects which in practice don’t work and are easily manipulated. The ecosystem around this is 1) a link is made to point to an app 2) the web frontend and AppStore are linked much like iTunes 3) the user does not see any internal information which might confuse the user.

      Part #3 is different from APT. Where we power users and developers care about information and filter out relevant aspects, the normal user is flabbergasted by all this information which feels as confusing as a blue screen of death. The middle ground is to hide details, and improve aspects such as categories and descriptions to make it scalable. has done this well.

      Another important aspect is that you need people to talk about your application, and link to it. Review it.

      “How much is Nokia really doing things wrong, and how much are we failing to see what the actual path is, and wishing we had already passed through changes that need their time?”Exactly! It just isn’t going fast enough. I really can’t wait… but, patience, my friends… patience… 🙂

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