You don’t ask your customers what they want

“Being customer-driven doesn’t mean asking customers what they want and then giving it to them,” says Ranjay Gulati, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “It’s about building a deep awareness of how the customer uses your product.”

via Prototype – Seeing Customers as Partners in Innovation – NYTimes.com.

This is from an article by Mary Tripsas, associate professor in the entrepreneurial management unit at the Harvard Business School; it describes “Customer Innovation Centers”, special facilities set up by big companies like 3M. Bruce Nussbaum has a post on it in which he refers also to the discussion raised by a provocative short essay by Donald Norman on the role of technology in radical innovation (“Technology first, needs last”). I won’t try to make a synthesis of Norman’s argument and the related debate (see e.g. one of the always nice ChittahChatta Quickies by Steve Portigal pointing to an interesting and critical post). But I would like to add here my 2 cents. The quotation above points to a common negative prejudice about design research, way less articulated than the takes by Norman. Quite many design research methods and techniques — or even the entire design research approach (see e.g. the MIT Press reference) — are often miscoinceved as ways to just extract innovation directly from users’ and customers’ minds, e.g. by inviting them to dull focus groups in which they are asked “what they want”. This is *not* design research but a caricature at best <grin>
Update: if you are interested in the discussion raised by the original essay from Donald Norman, see this other post from Nussbaum and the related comments, including one from Norman himself. En passant, and with all the due respect to everyone (the big and famous and all the others), I am a bit puzzled by the almost total absence of explicit philosophical argumentation. E.g. am I wrong or the all discussion might also be seen as a reneweal of the debate on technology determinism? The comment from Michele Visciola on the relative importance of human needs and their relation to culture points in the same direction from this point of view. Then one could argue that the all idea of contrasting technology and culture is weird, as technology is a cultural phenomenon — the cultural phenomenon for some, but this leads to wider questions.

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