Asking users for advice

Research is not about asking users what they want.


If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

– Henry Ford

This is one of the most cited quotes on innovation and user involvement, associated with Henry Ford. It is often used to dismiss user research – but that is a misunderstanding of its point.

Asking users “why”, and observing how they do things, is essential for user-centered design. Asking users what they want is unhelpful; it’s akin to asking for trouble.

Users are experts on their tasks, workflows, problems, and wishes. This is their area of expertise. They know where things are overly complex for them, where they struggle, where their workflow is broken. And they can even show it to you.

They might have suggestions on how to fix obstacles they encounter, or how to integrate their workarounds into existing solutions. But this feedback is based on their experiences and workflow. They address their own problems, which is fine. It’s not their job to understand or solve the larger issues. That’s your job.

Observing and talking to users helps you find problems and generate solution ideas. However, users can’t tell you what the overall solution should be.

Asking users for their ideal solution can seem like granting them a wish. They might expect it now to be built and be disappointed if it isn’t.

There is value in research – observe users’ behavior to identify their actual needs. Use it to come up with solutions. Ask them what they would like to change, not how. Don’t rely on your users to provide you with a solution.

Translating user feedback into a concept, is your area of expertise, and it’s a job you need to do yourself.