I’ve read a few great articles lately form PSFK, Johnny Holland and Bolt Group that explain how user centered design can derail innovative design. Each article had essentially the same thing to say along the lines of don’t let your users tell you what to design, Apple doesn’t rely on users during the design process and focus groups and pattern libraries suck. The Johnny Holland article dives the deepest and posits that the subjugation of innovation by user centered design is merely lazy design practices at it’s worst. Furthermore, it says UX designers are actually positioned to lead product innovation in several unique ways.
In my opinion, when a completely new product is brought to market, the last thing that will help it is committee based design. But that doesn’t mean we should all design in a box and unveil our miraculous creations. It simply means that we should use all the user centric tools available in the proper manner. Focus groups do suck for the most part, but they can be helpful to get high level impressions about a product or brand in a short time period. Just don’t make design decisions based on them. Instead, let them inform your understanding of the problem your design needs to solve. Similarly, users don’t really know what they want if you ask them outright, but it’s great finding out how something makes them feel. And please don’t ask users to prioritize feature sets. That’s our job.
Also, not necessarily relevant to user centric methodologies, but pattern libraries do make designers lazy. They’re also really helpful when you need to get a general idea out in short order. They’re also a good starting point to build upon. Just don’t base any design decisions on what’s available in your pattern stash. Imagine if Hendrix was all “I’m not sure if the audience is gonna like Voodoo Chile man… let’s just play some Pat Boone covers!”
As design professionals, we need to approach each and every project with an agenda to do something different than the last project. Even if our audience is 100% unfamiliar with a new product, we can still rely on human psychology, behavior and user centric research and testing to make sure the design is ultimately useable. And that’s the whole point of what we do. We create useable products and bolster innovation in the process.