ikea user testing

IKEA ignores user insight

… or do they?

I found myself re-reading a post on FastCompany, where consultants Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen boldly state that a user-centric company can’t create breakthrough innovation – “just ask Apple and Ikea”.

Of course, it was meant to be provocative.  And I am provoked.

The authors are mixing up terms and confusing user insight with asking the users what they want. On these grounds, it’s quite easy to dismiss on pure factual grounds.

I vaguely remebered having read this before (feeling equally vexed). Turns out that I had, more than three years ago.

Then I asked myself “Why am I angry now?”. I started to think of the many times I have met people that share their beliefs, even within the design community:

For example, “design gurus” and academics Don Norman and Roberto Verganti claim that human centered design is pretty much “dead” when it comes to radical innovation in recent paper in Design Issues. The two share the same, and arguably; narrow view of human/user centered design as a method for incremental improvements and “market-pull innovation”, ie. “asking users what they want”.

Its time to bust some myths!

#1 IKEA designers don’t use user studies or user insights to create their products.

According to their own website, IKEA states the following:

“We want to make everyday life at home better. That’s why we do thousands of home visits every year to learn more about peoples’ needs and dreams. This is the starting point for every product we design”.

“It always starts with an idea, and the idea is driven from a need, peoples needs”, says Marcus Engman, Design Manager IKEA of Sweden in the embedded video.

Mia Lundström, IKEAs creative director, spoke at Parsons School of Design last year where she makes a point of the fact that they need a deep understanding of peoples’ lives in different cultures. What they look at are not so much the homes in themselves. They are not wondering how large the windows are and where radiators are placed, but they want to learn as much as possible about the people.

According to Lundström, IKEA have 15 in-house designers, but they contract in over a hundred or more external designers every year. A lot of these designers do their own insight work as part of their design process or base their designs around previous insight.

#2 Great brands lead users, not the other way around.

A company has to be visionary and look beyond the current products in the market, otherwise there will be no radical innovation. Professor of management Roberto Verganti states: “Insights do not move from users to Apple but the other way around. More than Apple listening to us, it’s us who listen to Apple”.

True, we are breathlessly listening whenever there is a product launch at Apple. However, its not as if Apple designs their products in isolation:

Just look at the iPod which is mentioned by Verganti as an example of radical innovation. At the time there was already a number of mp3 players on the market (technology) and people wanted to find a way to download music legally (there was a need). In fact, users came up with both the file format and were sharing music already through p2p-networks (user driven?). Apple really “just” put these things together and added what was missing: A user friendly design and creating an interface for downloading music. In hindsight, it is relatively easy to see that the inspiration came from a myriad of different sources.

Why did not anyone else do it before Apple? Probably because Apple has a combination of capabilities (for instance in design and systemic innovation) which makes it possible for them to innovate in a holistic way where other companies struggle.

Being vision driven like Apple is a good idea, but that does not mean that it is possible to design without knowledge and insight into people and contexts.

#3 User focus makes companies miss out on disruptive innovations.

“Once the radical change has taken place, then Human Centered Design is essential for the continual refinement and improvement that marks incremental enhancement of product and meaning. But for radical change? Forget it.” states psychologist and former Apple employee, Don Norman here.

User centered design is about being an active listener and observe what people actually do. I would argue that companies (and designers) often underestimate the amount of observing, reading and asking they actually do.

In some cases, user centered design happens almost intutively and implicitly. Good designers are often naturally inquisitative and curious of other people. Sometimes the designer puts themselves in the users’ shoes or gets inspired by observing family and friends.

If we take the case of IKEA again, in addition to their extensive user research, they are also “exploring and talking to a lot of knowledgable people around the world. People who understand trends and what could be the future”, says Mia Lundström. Yet, they are very explicit about the fact that every product idea stems from a deeper understanding of people.

When Henry Ford said that users would have simply asked for faster horses, he could have been right, but then again, he probably never asked them. But I’m sure that some of the engineers at Ford probably observed a need for easier transport and movement, before they went to the drawing board.

User studies is creative fuel which can inspire both improvements and innovation. Seing the potential for disruptive innovation and radical change, now that depends on the eyes that observe…

Photo: Ana C