In the Quest for Innovation, Are Customers an Obstacle?

The Web offers designers and innovators an unprecedented and powerful mechanism to test their ideas. They can mock something up, put it online, and get immediate feedback. The approach may be the ultimate experiment in letting users collectively design products. But experts say this crowd-sourcing approach has limitations and downsides. Can a company blunt its innovation edge if it listens to its customers too closely? Can its products become dull if they are tailored to match exactly what users say they want?
These questions surfaced recently when Douglas Bowman, a top visual designer, left Google. In a rare display of independence among otherwise tight-lipped current and former Googlers, Mr. Bowman laid out on his blog the reasons for his abrupt exit, creating a bit of a commotion in the technology blogosphere.

There was no sugarcoating. Mr. Bowman essentially said that Google was not friendly to designers.

Mr. Bowman’s main complaint is that in Google’s engineering-driven culture, data  trumps everything else. When he would come up with a design decision, no matter how minute, he was asked to back it up with data. Before he could decide whether a line on a Web page should be three, four or five pixels wide, for example, he had to put up test versions of all three pages on the Web. Different groups of users would see different versions, and their clicking behavior, or the amount of time they spent on a page, would help pick a winner.

“Data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions,” Mr. Bowman wrote.

Google is unapologetic about its approach. “We let the math and the data govern how things look and feel,” Marissa Mayer, vice president for search products and user experience, said in a recent television interview.

The Web, of course, offers designers and innovators an unprecedented and powerful mechanism to test their ideas. They can mock something up, put it online, and get immediate feedback.

Better yet, they can mock up multiple designs and test them quickly. Then, they can repeat the process until they home in on the design that seems to be most popular.

The approach may be the ultimate experiment in letting users collectively design products. But experts in design and innovation say this crowd-sourcing approach has limitations and downsides.

“Getting virtually real-time feedback from users is incredibly powerful,” said Debra Dunn, an associate professor at the Stanford Institute of Design at Stanford University. “But the feedback is not very rich in terms of the flavor, the texture and the nuance, which I think is a legitimate gripe among many designers.”

Adhering too rigidly to a design philosophy guided by “Web analytics,” Ms. Dunn said, “makes it very difficult to take bold leaps.”

And as much as it may sound jarring, the customer is not always right.

“Customers sometimes do not know what they want,” said John Seely Brown, the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation, a research and consulting organization based in Silicon Valley. “It can be dangerous to just listen to what users say they need.”

None of this means that input from users is unimportant. Indeed, Ms. Dunn, Mr. Brown and others say designers must find a multitude of ways to understand users’ needs at a deeper level.

“It is more from engaging with users, watching what they do, understanding their pain points, that you get big leaps in design,” Ms. Dunn said.

That approach was evident in a redesign at Cooliris, a start-up whose software offers a way to view pictures and videos on a three- dimensional virtual wall of thumbnail images. In the new version, which Ms. Dunn helped design, the company included headlines and other text next to images.

“Now that it is out there, we can do the kind of micro-testing that Google talks about. But the broad design decision was not made that way,” she said.

It is hard to criticize the results of Google’s data-centric approach. The company is hugely successful. If a certain hue of blue causes users to click on ads at even a marginally higher rate, it can translate into millions of dollars flowing to the company’s bottom line.

What’s more, many of Google’s products are utilitarian. They are meant to help people complete tasks quickly – not to dazzle them the way, say, an iPhone dazzles users.

Even Mr. Bowman insists he never meant to slam Google. “Google’s approach works really well for Google,” he said.

But Mr. Bowman has found a place that better suits his sensibilities. He is now the creative director at Twitter, where he says he has a greater opportunity to shape the look and feel of the service. Already his team has unveiled a major design overhaul. On the margin of users’ pages they added a search box and a list of “trending topics,” subjects that are most popular with tweeters at a given time.

He has also found a new way to listen to customers: reading their tweets in reaction to the new design features.

“Using data is fundamental to what we do,” Mr. Bowman said. “But we take all that with a grain of salt. Anytime you make design changes, the most vocal people are the ones who dislike what you’ve done. We don’t just throw the numbers in a spreadsheet.”