Don’t (just) design what your users want

There was an interesting online tussle recently between 37 Signals, creators of online collaboration applications, and Donald Norman, revered usability expert. Is designing products to suit yourself a good idea or not?

In a recent Wired article, David Heinemeier Hansson of 37 Signals said,

I’m not designing software for other people, I’m designing it for me.

In response, Norman said,

If you want a hobby, fine, indulge yourself. If you are running a business, then the needs of your customers come first. This means understanding them, understanding the activities they do, designing for them. […] To say ‘I’m not designing .. for other people,’ is an attitude that will not only lead to failure, it is one that deserves to fail.

It’s great when your users are just like you

This can’t be disputed: to design a successful interactive product you have to understand your users’ needs, behaviours and motivations. But getting right to the bottom of what people need and want can be time-consuming and difficult. In the world, time scales and budgets can be tight and launching your product often changes the very user behaviour you’re designing for.

But sometimes, just sometimes, you get lucky: You find you’re designing for people who are just like you.

Some great inventions have occurred when designers just designed for themselves. Scott Berkun, quotes two in “the Myths of Innovation”: and the MacDonalds’ fast food production system.

I think Hansson is talking about just that. He designs apps for intelligent, pro-technology users just like himself, who need to collaborate on projects fairly similar to the kind of project he works on. And, because he’s got a nice tight design brief, 100% in-depth access to the psyche of his user and a very large marketplace he delivers a very popular and successful product.

Basecamp, 37 Signals' flagship product

Designer expertise counts

Both Norman and Hansson agree on one thing: user involvement alone is not enough. Designer vision, expertise and discipline is a vital part of successful innovation.


It does not mean throwing features together haphazardly. It does not mean doing everything customers request. It still means being disciplined, having a clear conceptual model of the product, and sticking to that model.

37 Signals:

If some customers tell us to add bananas to our lasagna, we’re not going to make them happy at the expense of ruining the dish for everyone else. […] That’s why it’s our job to be editors. […] To pick out the ideas that will benefit the most people and disappoint the least people. And sometimes that means doing nothing at all.

Homer Simpson's dream car: utter confusion

Designing exactly what customers ask for is usually disastrous.

And while we’re at it, Steve Jobs:

We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do.

A designer’s vision, often informed by personal beliefs or needs, has got everything to do with the design process. Market-beating results don’t usually come from just listening to users. As Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

Lessons in successful design

Every time we have this debate at Flow, we conclude pretty much the same thing…

  • Understand user needs, abilities and motivations.
  • Follow a disciplined design process, inspired by user research.
  • But don’t just do what the users tell you. You need personal inspiration and vision as well as skill and hard work.
  • So for best results, design something you believe in.

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