Users Don’t Know What They Want…Or What They do

We’ve heard it time and time again: People don’t know what they want. We’ve heard it from usability experts and UX designers…

To design an easy-to-use interface, pay attention to what users do, not what they say. Self-reported claims are unreliable, as are user speculations about future behavior. (Jakob Nielson, First Rule of Usability? Don’t Listen to Users)

You can’t ask users outright what they want. You get theoretical answers. You don’t get the answers that result from real choices in real situations. You don’t get the truth about how people think and work. (Robert Hoekman, Designing the Obvious)

The “listen to your users” produces incoherent designs. The “ignore your users” can produce horror stories, unless the person in charge has a clear vision for the product, what I have called the “Conceptual Model.” The person in charge must follow that vision and not be afraid to ignore findings. Yes, listen to customers, but don’t always do what they say. (Donal Norman, Human Centered Design Considered Harmful“)

We’ve heard it from Apple…

You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new. (Steve Jobs, quoted in “The Entrepreneur of the Decade“)

And we’ve heard it from pop-culture (thanks, George, for reminding me of this example):

[Homor’s half-brother] Herb decided his company needed a new car that would appeal to the “average” American. Despite the many objections of Herb’s employees, Herb encouraged Homer to follow his instincts in creating a car that American consumers would want to buy. Homer took charge of the project after Herb encouraged him to obey his gut when it came to what kind of car he wanted. Motors. (Simpsons Wiki, “The Homer”)

The picture featured at the beginning of the post is, in fact, “The Homer Car,” a automative frankenstein that cost so much to develop and was so expensive to purchase that it put Homer’s brother out of business.

I couldn’t help but post this 3D model of the Homer Car because it so brilliantly displays how horrible unique this car (can we still call it a car?) really is.

(This model was created by,  who has done some other amazing 3D work, too)

But back to my point: Leaving design decisions up to users isn’t typically the best idea. Users often don’t know what they want, or their “wants” are so highly individual-centered that the resulting products would never hold a wide audience appeal.

But wait. There’s more…

Users Don’t Know What They Do

According to Nielson, not only do users have a difficult time really understanding what they want, they often can’t accurately report on things they’ve actually done.

Why? There could be several reasons:

  1. They want to please you and might feel bad voicing a negative opinion about something you’ve created.
  2. They were afraid of going against what they think might be socially acceptable.
  3. They are embarrassed and think their decisions might reflect poorly on their intelligence, so they inflate the memories of their actions.
  4. They simply “remember” incorrectly. 

A study I read recently by Carlos Jensena, Colin Pottsa, and Christian Jensen that looked at users’ privacy practices with eCommerce sites supports this. They found that even though users claim they act on their concerns for online privacy–reading sites’ privacy policies, being aware of privacy indicators (encryption icons), and understanding privacy terminology (P3P, web-bugs, cookies)–their actual actions indicate otherwise.

Because of this, many people question the effectiveness of User-Centered Design. True UCD considers the the wants, desires, and needs of users throughout the entire design and implementation process. But is this realistic? Or does it consistently put us in danger of creating “Homer Cars?”

So, What’s the Alternative?

Norman suggests what he calls Activity-Centered Design which broadens the design focus to look at tasks people need to complete and the activities they need to do, rather than the desires of individual users or user groups.

Hoekman would prefer Self-Design:

Self-design is what user-experience professionals call the act of designing an application referencing only yourself or your own team, as opposed to external users, as the basis for design decisions. (Designing the Obvious)

But as Hoekman also points out, not too many designers would agree this is a good idea.

Jobs would tell us…well, he’d just make what he wants, tell us that we want it, package it in up neatly, put a $500 price-tag on it, and we’ll be setting up camp outside the Apple store the night before it goes on sale just to buy it.

I do have to agree that a strict approach to UCD isn’t entirely realistic–particularly for web design and web applications. It might make sense to do extensive user-research if our goals are to design something that is radically new and different from anything people currently use. But how many websites are that extremely different from all others? Haven’t we established basic foundations that guide us through most of the design process? Conventions that most people understand and accept? Isn’t that the purpose of developing and using heuristics guidelines?  Does competent designer intuition eventually take over?

I really don’t know…but I’m trying to figure it out.


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