Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Is user-centric innovation dead?

User-centric innovation has attracted a fair share of cynicisms and criticisms lately. Quoting the examples of Apple and IKEA, this recent piece argued that companies should lead their users, not the other way round. (

I recall we had a similar debate at a marketing class back in the b-school days. As what we have learnt from our business education, the short answer is really 'it depends'. Which side you take hinges on how one defines user-centric innovation. If we simply see this as asking people whether they like a certain new product concept, then user-centric innovation probably has limited value. But if we take a broader view of what user-centric innovation should be, I think there is still considerable value in listening to your customers.

I have just come across a good example today. Ashley Madison is a dating website for aspiring adulterers. The founder obviously did not ask people whether they fancied such a website. He realised that 30% of users of Internet dating services were pretending to be single when they weren't. So he discovered that there should be a market for a website for cheaters.

This is precisely user-centric innovation. Observing and listening to customers will not tell you what kind of products they need, but it will give you insights on their latent needs and wants, values and aspirations. This is by no means a straight forward process, but is definitely necessary.

By the way, if Apple would listen to me, I will tell them that they need to design a new Mac book with a screen that can be adjusted to the eye level of the user. It's a pain in the neck, spending too much time looking down on the laptop.

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