Thursday, May 05, 2016

Go ahead — ask people what they want

A version of this post has been published on Medium...

“Do not ask people what they want.”

This is a mantra in the field of design research. It is said over and over and over again.

It was said years ago by the likes of Steve Jobs, Jared Spool, and Jakob Nielsen (and many others); it was said more recently by the likes of Erika Hall and Don Norman (and many others); it was said perhaps most recently — earlier this week — by designer Jason Li:


Karen Holtzblatt has written: "Don't ask your customer what they need or want or like. People focus on doing their life not watching their life. So if you ask the customer, people can't tell you what they do or what they want, because it’s not part of their consciousness to understand their own life activities."

Don Norman said: “Don’t ask them what they want, because people don’t know what they want. Seriously, you don’t know what you want; I don’t know what I want.”

And, of course, there is the famous quote attributed to Henry Ford: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.”

But, doesn’t the answer about faster horses reveal important information? And do you really think that Don Norman never knows what he wants?

Do you never know what you want? Does what you think you want never reveal something of importance about what you really want, something which can be fruitfully expanded via additional questioning or other types of research? And is it never a part of your consciousness to understand your own life activities?

In an earlier post, I referenced a medical conference in which patients in the audience — patients who had invested tons of time in understanding their health(care) experience and in identifying what they wanted — were seriously offended when a speaker — a designer of wearable sensor products — proclaimed with pride that he never asks users what they need or want, but only observes user behavior. 

Is it advisable to observe user behavior? Of course. But is it good practice to offend the people for whom you are designing by refusing to ask them what they want?

The mantra of “do not ask people what they want” seems to partly be a reaction to over-simplistic practices of “requirements gathering.” But it also seems left over from the days of designer pomposity — when the approach of “designing for” dominated over the approach of “designing with.” This is not a claim that “designing with” only means you need to ask users what want; far from it. But users actually do often know what they want and need, and when they don’t (completely) know, answers to such questions often contain important clues.

Go ahead — ask people what they want. Just don’t ONLY do so.

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Thanks to attendees of the May meeting of the ATX UX Book Club (Article Month) for their feedback to a draft of this post.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Stanford Medicine X Austin Pop-Up


Written for a Medicine X newsletter (except for the added list at the end)

What experiments would you conduct to explore how to address problems experienced with healthcare today? This was the question posed to attendees of the Medicine X pop-up event in Austin the evening of November 9. Attendees had just been presented with 6 key insights regarding such problems — insights derived from research done in the Austin area, and attendees actively engaged in the brainstorming using post-its as part of a process used by designers applying design thinking to solve human-centered problems.


The research insights had been presented to the attendees by Stacey Chang, Executive Director of the new Design Institute for Health, a collaboration between the newly-formed Dell Medical School and the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. Stacey and the Institute are charged with applying creative design methodologies to the development of a model of a new value-based healthcare system for the Austin area. Stacey previously served as the Managing Director of the Healthcare practice at IDEO, a very successful global design and innovation firm.


Earlier in the program, Stacey outlined the mission of the Institute and its priorities, and expertly responded to the many challenging questions of the attendees, all people to be impacted by the product of the Institute’s work. The research insights he shared are insights which should be used as guides to the work of healthcare designers almost everywhere, though particularly in the United States.


The organizer for the pop-up was Richard Anderson, a past multi-year Medicine X ePatient Scholar and a teacher of human-centered design process at General Assembly, a co-sponsor of the event. He was joined on stage by Brett Alder and Breck Gamel, two other past Medicine X ePatient scholars, to introduce the program and to describe the Medicine X mission and experience.


The program was a success, leaving attendees feeling engaged in a process very important to the future of healthcare.

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photos by Alicia Dietrich & Chris Hammond

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FYI: the 6 research insights referenced in the newsletter piece above:
  • The Imbalance of Hope and Fear Prevents People From Engaging
  • Generalizations Keep My Baggage Stowed When It Should Be Unpacked
  • Navigating Health is Like Finding Your Way Through a Foreign Land Using a Map with No Legend
  • Diagnosis Today is a Period When It Should Be a Question Mark
  • Care Plans Feel Formulaic When They Demand Improvisation
  • Patient Compliance is a False Choice When People Aren’t Ready to Act