The clearest example is the oft-repeated fallacy that Apple isn’t a user centered organization because they never ask users what they want. In some instances, being user centered means ignoring or even going against explicit user wishes in order to better serve the user. Sound confusing?
37signals is perhaps the most famous software company that tends to completely ignore its users’ feedback. In the quest for an ever simpler and more delightful product they say no to almost every request to add more and more features. Without this filter the product would quickly get bloated, less user friendly and ultimately less likely to meet users’ needs. After all, the number one request they get is to keep the product simple.
As much as I hate to admit it another great example is Europe’s low-cost airline Ryanair. While widely reviled for it’s poor service and exorbitant service charges, the fact remains that their singular focus on what they believe matter most to their audience – price – and their ruthless efficiency in driving it down have made them Europe’s largest airline, and its most profitable.
So what does it take to be user centered?
Know your user
Truly understanding your target audience and what motivates them is critical to being able to make the right decisions for your product.
37signals are masters at this – focusing ruthlessly on small to medium businesses and building just for them while ignoring the clamoring of enterprise customers for ever more features. However frustrating this may be to those enterprise users, it creates really passionate small and medium business customers – and their retention rates prove it.
Focus on the problem
Focus on the problem, not the solution. When you’re talking to users you will inevitably get a number of feature requests and ideas, but ignore the solutions they’re presenting and get under the skin of that user request. If you focus on the problem behind it and really understand what their pain is you will usually design a better solution than they could ever have considered.
Alan Cooper sums this up brilliantly in a 2006 talk where he passionately responds to a question regarding finding out what users want through iteration, and gives this great analogy:
[Doctor], I Broke my arm, the bone is sticking out, it hurts like hell, but I find that if I hold it in this position the pain is at a local minimum. So would you please duct tape it to my body in this position so it doesn’t hurt every time I take a step?
When they come to you […] with bones sticking out of their body it means there is a problem and you have to bring your expertise to bear and analyze the problem and come up with a solution.
Listen to your user’s problem, then apply your expertise, design skills and market knowledge to solving it.
Have a strong user centered vision
It’s still important to stick to your vision. Building a vision through creative thought, applied industry knowledge and design experience can lead to a completely new paradigm that serve the user better than anything they could have imagined or known to ask for. But it’s important to make sure that vision is about serving the user best – not building the best possible product.
For example, in the earlier days Apple’s mission statement was “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” It’s admittedly a pretty aspirational mission, but it’s good because it sets a user-centric vision for the company and most importantly doesn’t focus on one product as the solution to that vision. If their mission had instead been “To build the best personal computers” there would have been no room to grow into music devices, mobile phones and tablets.
If your business model and team are aligned around customer success, you’re more likely to get everyone in the company on board with your vision and maintain that clear focus on the user.
Most Software as a Service businesses, like 37signals, are by default aligned with their customers because the recurring revenue model requires them to stay on their toes and constantly ensure they’re delivering value to the end user. If they didn’t, the month to month contracts and relatively low switching costs mean customers can and will walk away.
Investment advisory firms are another example, their business model is based on how much money clients have invested, so they’re incentivized to keep their business for a long time by ensuring they select appropriate investment products. They’re also incentivized to not lose them money, so therefore don’t want them to take on too much risk. Contrast this with traditional brokers who only make money when clients trade, and thus are incentivized to keep them trading – regardless of whether it’s good for the client or not.
How are you ensuring that your business maintains a focus on the user without being led by them?