Go ahead — ask people what they want

“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.

Find more blog posts by Richard at Riander Blog; follow Richard on Twitter at @Riander.

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