Creative Studio


A blog about design, user experience, startups and everything in between.

Stop Asking Users What They Wanta


We live in a competitive environment and from that companies derive the desire of creating new products or enter new markets to stay relevant, increase market cap and profits. But before that, they have to create new products or improve the current one that will allow them to get a higher market cap. And at one point, the management team will have the question:


What do users want?

It seems like a simple question with a simple formula when trying to build a new product or feature:

  1. If your goal is to make things people buy and use, you should design what people want.

  2. To do that, you need to know what people want — do research.

  3. You find your core users, you study them and you ask them what they want.

  4. Then you go and make what they told you they need.

Unfortunately it does not work that way. The first rule of user research: never ask anyone what they want. You know what people want? People want to be liked. (If Facebook gets one thing right, this is it.) When you ask someone what they want, it is very possible the answer you’ll receive will be what they think you want to hear. Or the response that reflects how they like to think of themselves. And also take into account that it’s almost impossible for an average person to want what they can’t imagine. You risk limiting the scope of your ideas because of the imagination of others.


Everybody lies

Even those who we would call honest, lack enough self-knowledge to give an accurate opinion. It may seem as a harsh statement for the designers who want to empathise with users.

Having a true self-awareness is a skill developed the hard way and very few own it so you can’t expect everyone to have it. Our challenge as designers is to figure out how to get the information you need by asking the right questions and observing the correct details.


Asking direct questions is not the best approach

It’s like trying to break into someone’s house — you will meet some barriers along the way. So our job is to figure out how to cut into a user’s brain and find out what they truly want or need.

For example, when during an interview you ask a person “what’s your greatest weakness?” almost everyone will be uncomfortable with the question and most likely will lie to you. Everyone interviewing for a job thinks up an answer in advance. No one likes it. No one actually gets anything out of it. Then in the context of design you might ask: “What would you like us to improve in our product?” or “What other features do you need?” and almost all the time you will hear personal beliefs. That’s important, but should not become the primary decision criteria for creating the future of your product. You must figure out a better way to get the most precise picture.

If I ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been due more to patient attention, than to any other talent .
— Sir Isaac Newton

If you go in through the front door, asking direct questions, you’ll run into defences and get bad, and potentially useless, answers. And don’t get me wrong, sometimes asking directly “what’s the issue?” may give you a better solution than trying to figure it out yourself. But like going to a doctor, she doesn’t start diagnosing the disease only from what you told her. She is a professional and knows that you might not know the exact cause. So she needs to do proper research first. The same applies to people who design products.


Research is essential, but not crucial

I came across an interview of Wally Ollins, co-founder of Wolff Olins, done by Debbie Millman. And during that interview, Millman wrote an important piece about him, which I find resonating with what I believe about research:

As others might, he doesn’t dismiss it outright, nor does he elevate it to the status of unassailable icon. It is, he acknowledges, useful for specific situations and purposes — but not for making decisions about the future. “Finding out what people feel about things that are happening today is extremely useful,” he says. “Trying to get people to tell you what will work tomorrow is useless.”

With that said, I don’t mean that doing research is useless or not mandatory. But rather we do it wrong. We take those numbers and results we gathered as a belief system. This way, some of us, make it compulsory that the output must conform to them. For example, some of you witnessed these type of affirmations “50% of interviewed customers love the website and they say we should not change it” and that’s not the right approach. To explain my point better, I have a short story for you.


A Jaguar and a human

Senior marketers at Jaguar used focus groups again and again and again to be told that all the cars Jaguar produced were lovely. Consumers told them they should never do anything different. They loved it as it was. And so they delivered the same car again and again, until people stopped buying it.

You can’t sit in a focus group and ask people if it will work. They wouldn’t know what you are talking about, and they’re incapable of telling you what they want .
— W. Ollins

To have imagination, you must own an unusual level of self-confidence and creativity. Most designers, brand consultants, marketers, and decision makers — wrap themselves up in analyses, in jargon, in pretended statistical data that is comforting and gets them well-paid but is meaningless.

Watching people’s behavior is more revealing than listening to what they have to say. See what they do and not what they say. There’s also the same problem in social sciences with questionnaires. They are usually answered aspiration-ally. For example: “are you a generous person?” And people will say “Of course I am!”. No matter if you put as an option to answer yes/no or choose from 1 to 10 .
— Isabel Behncke

Why do we still follow the numbers?

Because it is quantifiable and people love seeing a tangible thing before their eyes. However, if you are going to create something that is a breakthrough, you will have to rely on your intuition, judgement and imagination. So stop seeking comfort in statistics and start using it as an add-on to your thinking process. And this statement is not an excuse to say during meetings or when taking a product decision that “We have to do _____ because I worked with ____ 20 years ago and it worked just fine.”


Research should be done correctly

Bruce Duckworth, Co-Founder of Turner Duckworth, President of D&AD, said in an interview about research:

We at Turner Duckworth like research, but we believe it should be done correctly. Research is inevitable, but it’s often used in the wrong way/ When it’s used at the end of a project, and consumers are asked to choose a design as if they were judging a beauty contest, it’s a disaster. The focus-group scenarios that people are put in are often so inappropriate and so alien to the way people normally make decisions about what they’re going to buy. Furthermore, it’s not really up to consumers to make those kind of design choices because they tend to evaluate things based on what they’ve known in the past, and they don’t look at the design in light of what your goal is.


Let me tell you about the word “brand” a bit

Stanley Hainsworth, Chief Creative Officer at Tether and former VP of Global Creative at Starbucks and Nike said an excellent definition of what a brand is:

A brand is an entity that engenders an emotional connection with a consumer. Consumers emotionally connect with brands when the brands repeatedly provide something that the consumer wants, desires or needs.

What does this have to do with research and user’s needs? The best brands are those that create something for consumers that they don’t even know they need yet. A coffee brand like Starbucks created something they didn’t think they needed. Same with Nike. Who knew we needed a high-end performance running shoe?

The trouble with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say .
— David Ogilvy

When people are surprised or delighted by how a brand can change their lives by just making it a little bit better — or a little bit more fun or a little more performance-oriented — that’s when they start creating a connection with that brand. And you can’t give them what they need only by asking or doing research on them. You have to have a vision and observe their lifestyle, desires and needs, and from that — combined with research — you can design future products or solutions.

And to finish this article, I would like to tell you a line from Howard Schultz, former two times CEO of Starbucks:

If I went to a group of consumers and asked them if I should sell a $4 cup of coffee, what would they have told me?
Eugen Esanu