The idea of user-centred design is now so prevalent that it scarcely needs any introduction. In this modern world of customer focus, who could be against it? I am in no position to knock it – this blog has a set of posts labelled user-led design. There is a risk, though, that it all gets pushed too far. People aren’t on the whole very good at imagining the consequences of uncertain or discontinuous change, and there is a risk that the prospect of change is seen more negatively than the change itself would be.
Design is a way to innovate the meaning of things. User-centred innovation is great for improving something incrementally – you ask people what they want and provide better solutions. But to radically change a product’s meaning, you can’t always start from the users because they pull you towards an existing meaning.
A focus group almost killed Herman Miller’s Aeron chair. It had a radical new meaning – it was an ergonomic machine that let you see its mechanism [the chair uses mesh covering rather than cushioning]. When Miller showed it to a focus group, they asked to see the upholstered version.
Roberto Verganti, interviewed in Design Council Magazine [but hidden behind an irritating registration wall]
It’s not clear from the short interview whether Verganti believes that the designer knows best, though he clearly believes that design is a highly professional activity, which is not at all the same thing. Being able to imagine something new is far from being a universal skill, but it isn’t a licence to leave customers out of the process.