User-led innovation can't create breakthroughs. Really?

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Earlier this week, Fast Company posted an article by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen (thanks to Gunnar Hellekson for sending it my way) that may be of interest to folks seeing success with their open source and open innovation efforts.

The article is entitled "User-Led Innovation Can't Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and IKEA" and here's how it starts:

Companies should lead their users, not the other way around.

The user is king. It’s a phrase that’s repeated over and over again as a mantra: Companies must become user-centric. But there’s a problem: It doesn’t work. Here’s the truth: Great brands lead users, not the other way around.

Jens and Rasmus aren't the first to preach this sermon, Henry Ford (apocryphally, at least) had a go at it about 100 years ago. And Steve Jobs has famously used Henry Ford's "faster horse" quote to describe Apple's philosophy about market research for years.

To make their case, Jens and Rasmus use Apple and IKEA as case studies of brands that have done very well by not listening to their users, and in the article they document conversations with insiders at each company.

According to Jens and Rasmus, Apple doesn't waste time asking users for opinions. Instead, Apple focuses on designing great products they think people will love (Steve Jobs pretty much says as much here). The other example, IKEA, is guided by an unspoken philosophy of "we show people the way."

I rather enjoyed this article, and believe it makes some interesting points (I especially liked the "three types of icons" categorization, and couldn't agree more on the role of vision, values, and culture). I'm certainly no fan of market research as an all-encompassing answer to everything either.

But I do spend quite a bit of time developing community-based strategies for organizations, including testing user-driven innovation approaches, and I hope I've learned a thing or two about community-centered brand strategy over the years.

So I thought maybe I'd weigh with an alternate view on a few of the points made in the article. Here goes:

1) Using Apple and IKEA to generalize a point about how innovation breakthroughs happen is a little like saying "because chocolate tastes good, all food should taste like chocolate."

I agree that both IKEA and Apple have superb innovation strategies... for them. But each brand is different. For every brand modeled after Apple or IKEA, there is another that has seen success with an approach that takes user ideas into account. I happened to spend 10 years of my career working for one such company.

But there are plenty of other examples, even beyond the open source technology world. Stefan Lindegaard's 15inno open innovation blog does a nice job of highlighting many examples of organizations pursuing innovation with the help of user and customer communities. IDEO has built a very successful business around a human-centered approach as well.

2) Getting user feedback ≠ taking user feedback.

Jens and Rasmus jump to a conclusion that I probably wouldn't reach myself. They argue that it is actually harmful to listen to users and that innovative brands don't care about what their users want. They make four key points 1) Users insights can’t predict future demand 2) User-centered processes stifle creativity 3) User focus makes companies miss out on disruptive innovations 4) User-led design leads to sameness.

I agree that these four things can be traps organizations fall into when taking in user input (see: focus groups). But getting users involved in the creation process doesn't mean you must blindly take that feedback and implement it as if you were taking orders. In my experience, most good user-driven efforts are much more sophisticated than that.

3) Do Apple and IKEA really not care about what their users want? Really?

I'd be very surprised if either Apple or IKEA would agree with the assertion that innovative brands don't care what their users want. On the contrary, I expect Apple and IKEA care very much about what their users want—they just think they understand what the users will want better than the users do.

Both companies are expert at anticipating the desires of their user base. If you are really good at this type of prognosticating you can produce ground-shaking, market-making innovations.

But it is not the only way to do it.

Watching Apple and Google compete in 2011, we are currently witnessing a classic battle between two great innovation strategies, one open, one closed. Both are producing fantastic results (I've written about this battle previously, here and here).

Overall, I think creating controversy was probably the intent of this article, to get people thinking and discussing. So job well done. But I'm not sure there is only one path to innovation breakthroughs.

Am I wrong? What do you think?




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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


Based on my own experience in this field listening is very much part of scaling innovation. And if anyone believes for one minute that Apple (for example) isn't listening then I'd be keen to understand their speed of response to the great 'holding it stops it working' debacle of the iphone4.
Using social tech means you can scale better fit innovation in two ways:
1. Passive (gathering online conversations as insight for change)
2. Active (Identifying scalable groups of influencers for co-creation.
I detail these a little more here:

These are no-brainer methodologies for companies to create a better fit with the fitness landscape in which they operate.

On occasion a product emerges which changes that fitness landscape. But those occasions are rare and filled with huge gaps of fail in between. For most orgs most of the time, seeking to replicate the innovation with the crowd is a much better bet than aiming to transform the landscape.

Nice response, Chris. I'd further add that their thesis flies in the face of research done on innovation, particularly Eric von Hippel and Sonali Shah's work. They note (as many do), that innovation generally comes from the outside-in, and they show how user-generated innovation in many fields is generally more likely to keep than company-generated innovation.

I find it silly to think of Apple and Ikea as companies that only produce big innovations by not asking their users. In the end there is no one true law that leads to innovation. User centered design is just one method that helps to produce results. Whether they are innovative is depending on so many things

Ego, left unchecked, blinds us to the point at which we think we are innovating in a vacuum.

Apple doesn't listen, and that's why they succed? That's total crap. We know that's total bull, but our ego sure wants to believe it. So, we ingest it, and use that point the next time a user with a valid point might sound a bit too risk averse for our liking. Not smart, if we want an authentic, and successful outcome.

Every time a transaction occurs, Apple and Ikea listen. Call it market-driven or user-driven, it is loud and clear, and their hearing is tuned in to that frequency better than most, especially lately.

Don't believe everything you read in Fast Company. Ego-centric success fluff sells issues, but doesn't provide a very realistic nor healthy perspective for today's honest entrepreneur.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks! I do still feel like the original article was a bit over the top on purpose in order to get a reaction, making a bold claim so people would think a bit more.

But one additional thing struck me this morning. The article says IKEA doesn't employ user studies or user insights because they tried it previously and it doesn't work.

But as I've been waiting two weeks for the last missing part to arrive so I can finish up my IKEA kitchen, I'm actually wishing IKEA would take some of MY user insights into account right about now... from my personal experience, a little user-led innovation might do them some good!

Thanks again for weighing in!

This is a part of the business ethos that all companies can be painted with the same brush. Start-up companies must listen to their users or die an early death. This is because all of their users are bleeding-edge users and may know more than the company does. When the company becomes big enough for non-bleeding-edge users, it must change its policy. The bleeding-edge users become the power users but most of its costumers are the "I don't care what's under the hood as long as it works" type. Most of them can't tell you what they want in a manner you can use but the power users can. The company must identify them and listen to them. Don't think so? Try googling "Apple Newton" and "Apple Lisa". Apple just got lucky with its iPod. And these days, most of its revenue these days come from renting music and apps, not electronics.

This article is misleading in several ways. To create a completely new product or industry that has never existed by asking users what color they want their lunchbox to be is silly obviously. And your two examples of Apple and Ikea not using user center design are just wrong. Apple uses UCD all over the place. The very idea of the Macintosh is a derivative idea that Jobs came to through observation. Apple even documents the UCD process in their famous User Interface Guidelines. Using Ikea as an example is almost funny. Ikea is the paragon of lowest common denominator design (LCDD). I’ve never heard anyone accuse Ikea of being an innovative design company. User Center Design is simply knowing and observing your audience. In the movie the Social Network the Zuckerberg character uses UCD constantly to develop “the Facebook.” He learned the behavior of students and came up with the ideas for Facebook. This is all UCD is.

Not all design is about disruption and breakthroughs. If it was we would have even more chaos than we already do. Some design is about incremental refinement. So the problem with the grand statement that “ULD is all bullshit” is overblown. Of course we all want to be creative and innovative. And for a vibrant economy this is important. But like everything in life there is balance.

Grand articles that create red herrings for effect are of limited usefulness. There are important points in this article.

Be a Visionary
Vision needs to be strong and consistent. Most organizations fail on the vision thing. This has nothing to do with UCD. It has to do with deciding what business you are in and execution.

Create an icon
Creating an icon is great and hard to predict.

User insights can’t predict future demand
Of course User insights (opinions) don’t directly predict the future. But this isn’t the point of UCD. The point is to create your own insight by being in the real world and understanding how people use products.

User-centered processes stifles creativity
I think this is mis-framed. Being a slave to rigid process stifles creativity. Enjoying and understanding the people you are trying to reach with your product or design increases creativity.

User focus makes companies miss out on disruptive innovations
This is too broad a statement. The automobile, the computer, social networking, the iPhone, etc. are all results of incremental design and observation of humans interacting with their tools.

User-led design leads to sameness
True “user-led” design might lead to sameness. “User-centered” does not.

Over reliance on process and statistics can be stifling. Design should be multi-disciplinary. Knowing your users is a good thing. At its core that’s what UCD is.

User Centered Design (UCD) is not the same as user studies for new product design, innovation. Unfortunately the article is not clear enough on this point for the design community.

I like to comment on this as well. I was at a recent debate of Artificial Intelligence vs. Human Intelligence (ironically the same week as the Jeopardy and IBM show) and I posed the question, did consumers buy the original ipod or iphone because of the technology used to created the functionality or because of the design approach Apple used that was very disruptive? I recently read a book by Adam Hartung, Create Marketplace Disruptions and he talks about how you can't pull your customers for information they will always say that they want it better faster cheaper but if you look at the competitive landscape go where your competitors are not. He's a big fan of Apple, his recent blog post in Forbes asks the question, "would you hire Steve Jobs"?

Great, provocative article, and excellent comments. Having worked in a global FMCG corporation with standardised processes, best practice and benchmarks all in place, I believe the authors have a point. There is a risk that this kind of approach will more often lead to evolution than to step-change innovation. And though evolution often makes great sense from a business standpoint, one issue this corporation has been facing is big, bold innovation.

This being said, context has to be taken into consideration. There may be categories within which consumers wouldn't accept disruptive innovation. Take, for example, culinary foods rooted in local eating habits. Surely, these will evolve over time, but trying to launch disruptive innovation in culturally rooted categories based on habit is likely to cost you millions with little return.

I even doubt that Steven Spielberg creates his movies without a clear insight how to make it successful. As has been said by some of the commentators, consumer insight led innovation is not about following consumers' statements by the letter (which, by the way, isn't “insight” anyway, these are findings). It is about understanding the powerful underlying need or motivation. I would expect Steven Spielberg to have an unequalled grasp of the role that storytelling or legend has for his target, based on experience and insight gained over his many years in the business.

Another point that is often encountered in marketing departments is that insight led innovation requires focus. To create products people will love you will have to be specific about exactly who will love them because there is a good chance that another group will be underwhelmed. A great example: Marmite capitalised on this polarising effect in one of their TV campaigns. It's just that marketers too often can't seem to whip up the courage to create a clear profile. The result is either a big huge compromise, or a large range of all sorts for everyone, which dilutes the brand profile.

Aside from the discussion whether it is sensible/necessary or not, Ikea most definitely does use user feedback. Ikea just send out a mail asking customers whether they would like to participate in a study. In English it translates to:

"Ikea is continuously working on better and smarter solutions.

We can only achieve that by getting more insight into how people live and what their needs are. And we need your help with that. We would like more insight in the needs and desires with regards to the usage and purchase of drawers. (...)"

The point here is that statements should not be assumed to be applicable all across the product portfolio. The PS line of Ikea is likely to be more design driven, but the above quote clearly shows that they are requesting user feedback regarding drawers.

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