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.

4 comments:

Richard Anderson said...

On Medium, Maggie Rudzinski wrote:

You’re definitely picking up on to one of the bigger dilemmas of our field! This is something I see a lot of designers struggle with.

I want to unpack the Ford quote as a good example of how to approach the issue. On the one hand, Ford is right — people are limited to their own experiences, and they don’t bring much variety, creativity, or curiosity to the choices they make. They won’t often go out looking for cars when they think of travel in horse-and-cart terms. That said, feedback like “I want a faster horse” is far from useless. People might not know what they want in terms of objects or solutions, but they do know why they want it. They know they want to go faster, get good quality at a price they can afford, they know their limits, needs, and opinions. Designers know there’s a lot to be gained from understanding the experiences of other people.

In this way, saying “don’t ask people what they want” is not a complete rejection for soliciting the opinions of your users, but we must acknowledge that most people have a limited scope of awareness — the last thing we want is to mirror that scope through interview questions that go the wrong direction, or by drawing limited, hard to apply conclusions from interacting with users. If they knew what their options were and how to access them, they wouldn’t need a designer, right?

Richard Anderson said...

On Medium, James Landay wrote:

I think the mantra is not about not asking users what they want, but is instead about being careful in how you interpret the answer to that question and how the answer should impact the design work that you follow with. So I believe the mantra is mainly aimed at novices who may make the mistake of blindly designing what users say they want.

Richard Anderson said...

By the way, I asked Don Norman to react to my post. Here is how he responded via email:

“​You are correct. the statement “don’t ask people what they want” is dramatic, but overstated. It should be, do ask people what they want, but don’t take their word for it. If you have an established product, their wants can lead you to important new insights. If you have a very new product, their wants reflect their experience today and cannot be relied upon. Here is where you need observation to understand the tasks they perform, where you, the expert observer, can discover needs they never realized — that is, until you point them out.”

Dave Holly said...

Personally my experience is more like...be very careful who you ask and have a conversation to manage expectations, especially if you are designing an application for a customer.

The higher a person is in an organisation the more likely they are to want maximum control and have very little understand beyond their own experience

"Designing" websites and apps has become a DIY pastime and every user considers themselves an expert. Gathering good user requirements from a customer can often rely on their powers of observation!