A revolt is fomenting within the design community. Researching and knowing the user has been a foundational priniciple of best-practice product design for some time. Now, however, I’m hearing with greater frequency the opinion that soliciting feedback from users doesn’t give you the answers you need. That users don’t really know what they want. That focus groups are useless. That Voice of the Customer is illusionary. Why the blowback?

One reason is that user research is messy. Everyone is different, and you often get contradictory answers. Rather than revealing a specific path down which the design should proceed, customer feedback can instead lead to multiple paths. It’s difficult to know which path is best, and sometimes the wrong path is chosen, causing the product to fail and leading the designers to distrust the research methodology.

Another reason is that the designers can take too narrow a view of the research results. They apply user feedback to the details of the design while losing sight of the overall problem the user is trying to solve by using the product, or the need that the product satisfies.

Still another reason is society’s increased awareness of the design visionary (“I know what people will want, even though they themselves don’t know it right now”). It’s an enticing idea to think that instead of undertaking the complex and time-consuming task of researching users we can simply follow our instincts.

What can we, as medical device designers, learn from this? First, the fact that this type of research is being questioned is in and of itself a healthy thing. Accepting conventional wisdom never leads to innovation. The usual ways of doing things need to be upended. Second, it points more to problems with how research is interpreted and applied than it does to the research methodologies themselves. In that respect, the new scepticism about what we can learn from users should encourage us to keep our focus on the real problems we are trying to solve through design.