To Design an Awesome Product, Let Go of Being Right

By Hannah Alvarez | September 14, 2015
To Design an Awesome Product, Let Go of Being Right
I recently had a conversation with a designer who was working on the early stages of a new product. Naturally, I recommended getting user feedback early and often throughout the design process. And he said…
“But what if your user is wrong?”
He knew he was working on a great idea. He knew the world needed his solution, and he knew how to present it to them. The only problem was that his users didn’t get it. When he showed his prototype to his target market, they didn’t know why or how they would use the product. They didn’t see it fitting into their lives. They didn’t understand where to tap or what to do. They kept trying to take actions that didn’t make sense. They were wrong! I had some bad news for him:
“You can pat yourself on the back for being right… while your product fails.”

How much should we really care about what the user wants?

There’s a famous line that people often attribute to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” While we’re not certain that Ford ever actually said that, the meaning is clear: consumers often suggest mundane, unimaginative, and sometimes unrealistic solutions. If you only create what the users say they want, then there’s no room for brilliant problem-solving, innovation, and disruption. On top of that, people are notoriously bad at predicting their own future behavior. Just because someone says they’d use a product doesn’t mean they actually will. That’s why some folks don’t put a lot of weight into research findings from focus groups. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid early-stage research! You just need to ask the right questions (not “What should we build?”).

Don’t ask what people want. Instead, find out what they need.

Find out what problems already exist, and learn about how people interact with those problems, rather than jumping straight to the solution. When you can clearly define the problem—and understand how users deal with it currently—then you can start working on solutions. Contextual inquiry, free exploration, and longitudinal studies on existing products are great ways to understand how people solve their problems without the help of your solution. You’ll find their pain points and get some really useful insights on what would actually be valuable to the user. It will also help you build empathy for your target audience, which is key to designing products people want. Remember: as you’re doing your research, the point isn’t to ask what users want or what they might be likely to do in the future. It’s to observe their behavior and identify their pain points so you can determine what needs to be built. Once you understand the problem—and the solutions people are currently using (or making up) to work around that problem—you’re going to have a much clearer picture of what you need to create.

Yes, your users will be “wrong.”

Once you’ve started designing a prototype, it’s time to watch people try to use it. It can be a little shocking to watch someone struggle with the product that made so much sense to you. And it’s very tempting to assume the user either:

a. Will figure out how to use the product with a little practice, or b. Is not all that bright, and therefore not your actual target user after all.

But here’s the thing: when your product is out there in the world, your user is most likely under no obligation to keep using your product until they understand it. If they can’t figure it out, then they can put it down at any point and switch to a competitor instead (or just go without it altogether). They don’t know or care that your design choice was the “correct” one. They only care whether or not they can easily do what they need to do. That means the user’s problem is your problem, and it’s your job to fix it if you want your product to succeed. Think of your prototype as more of a hypothesis than a product. It might not work out, and that’s okay. Your goal is to learn what works and what doesn’t, make improvements, and test again.

Let go of being right. Embrace getting better.

Design with empathy and humility. Listen to your users, and take their feedback seriously. Test and iterate on your prototype until you arrive at a design that users want, like, can use, and will use. You may end up with a product that’s very different from the one you envisioned. But in the long run, your new, feedback-driven product is going to be much more successful than the one you imagined. And that sounds a lot better than being right.

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About the author(s)
Hannah Alvarez

Hannah is a content manager, dedicated to helping marketers and designers build amazing experiences. In her free time, she likes making things and going on adventures.