Research Vs. Instinct

It is often said that good design is founded upon good research. There is a lot of truth to that. However there are also pitfalls that can come from relying too much on research over designer’s instinct, just as ignoring research in favour of the gut feel of the designer or stakeholder has it’s own obvious pitfalls.

As a designer, I am asked to undertake research on a regular basis; research my users, research the market, research the competitors… there are times where you would be forgiven for thinking that my field is purely research based. The truth is, that research is a tool, not the master of design. It just happens to be the single most reliable one, and one of the most useful.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

Oft attributed to Henry Ford, the supposed quote is often used as an argument against reliance on your customers for direction in innovation.

Aside from the fact that there is no evidence to support Henry Ford ever making that statement, the statement itself has been taken up as a self evident truth among business people and designers the world over.

People do not know what they want.

This is true. Sort of.

People know what they want, but they are bad at verbalising it, or even recognising the specifics. They know what they want “in their gut” even if they do not know what they want in their head. When what they actually want is for their transportation methods to be faster, with no concept of what a car is, they might well imagine the solution to be a faster horse.

It is very easy for somebody to take a customer’s proposed solution being presented as a desire, without the realisation that this is not actually the core need, but a solution that still needs to be interpreted. This is what a researcher is for, and that is why part of user experience is about learning how to conduct that research.

No designer worth their salt uses the quote as an argument against listening to research, but if management quote it, then you may have a problem that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. If a director quotes it, you might want to start looking to replace them, or starting to look for somewhere else to work: No good decisions ever come from a company ignoring the needs of it’s customers.

Taking a look at Henry Ford’s history, he spotted a need, and he provided the solution in a way that might have seemed unlikely at the time. In the 1920’s, he suffered from not moving to offer the solutions that his potential customers needed because he was providing the same solution that had been relevant in 1908. The world had changed, and so had the needs of his customers. The solution he was offering had not changed to match them.

The lesson here is that you need to conduct research, more research, and further research beyond that. I would go so far as to say that you need to conduct continual testing and research as markets change, along with user needs and working practices.

After all, before cars were a reality, people wanted “faster horses” in order to improve the speed at which jobs were done. After the car came along, different jobs had different speed requirements. Not everyone who had once needed a “faster horse” needed a “faster car” any more. Some of them needed a car with more pulling power, others needed a bigger car, and yes, some still needed a faster car.

Some of the faster car need might not require a lot of capacity; no passengers are needed for most courier runs, and eventually, the telegraph if there is no need to send anything physical.

Now all of this can be arrived at through intuition, and informal recognition of market opportunities. That is a lot of risk to be taking without anything to back you up.

On the other hand, listening to research rather than following instinct would have meant that Apple dropped floppy drives long after people had all switched to using USB sticks. They understood the needs that user research wasn’t going to tell them. If anything, researching their users would have told them that they needed those drives to remain, since who would ever ask for fewer features in the next version of the product that they own?

In conclusion, research is vital. It is however only a tool in the designer’s kit; it just happens to be an important one. If you are doing it right, it is not “Research vs. Instinct” but “Research & Instinct” and it’s the instinct that you spend years honing through study, research, and experience.


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