Monday, 2 December 2013

Design Thinking: User Needs vs. User Wants (What I love about my Aeron Chair...)

If you haven't sat on one of these chairs, I'd highly recommend it (you can always just go to your Local Herman Miller Show-case if your work or friends don't already own one). As a user it's pretty much the perfect chair. I don't think I've sat in a more comfortable chair (when fully configured properly), especially with the optional lumbar support at the back. 

(Not all companies are willing to invest in their employees, but it's definitely a luxury I've totally enjoy at my office.)

(My actual chair - a 10+ year old model)

Herman Miller has always been knowing for their high-end furniture, but when they invented the Aeron, it was a game-changer. I remember being in a fancy start-up and getting these chairs! It was all the rage, but it was a chair that cost many times more than it's traditional alternatives. (Today's Black-Friday sale @ HM had it at $577.15 from $679.00, but I distinctly remember it being closer to $1000 earlier on.)

This is what the HM sites says in it's description:

The Work Chair Redefined
Aeron changed the way everyone thought about office chairs—from its revolutionary look to its advanced ergonomics to the fact that it's 94 percent recyclable.
Instantly adaptable to all the motions you go through every day while seated, Aeron provides healthy comfort and balanced body support. Its innovative suspension and easy-to-use adjustment controls let the chair move effortlessly as your body moves.

If you haven't already, I encourage you to look at the Design Story feature @ the HM site. 

(Prototype -

(Above is a great example of a low-fi model. In the video, Stumpf talks about another prototype as "just ugly". A topic for another day, but prototypes are great! Sketches are great! Look at how many were created during the Aeron design! Think about the 50lbs of clay from the last blog.)

From the web site there are many quotes, but these are a brief splattering of the most "telling" ones:

"They threw out all preconceived notions of what a work chair should look like."
"Function Is Form"
"We wanted a totally new kind of chair.
"I want to sit on this really bad."

The chair we are looking at today, the first Aeron, over 20 years old (designed in 1992) was a disruptive innovative change. The chair won so many awards and it's crowning achievement is that it's part of the MoMA permanent collection. Yet how could a chair so beloved today actually almost not make it to market?

If you've read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, it tells of the chair didn't do well.
  • 4.5/10 for Comfort Scale
  • 2-3/10 for  Aesthetics Scale

It actually didn't even meet min. score (7.5) that Herman Miller internally puts on Test Group ratings before product release. It was actually called "The Chair of Death" by in the 1st group. Yet luckily Max Depree the Chairman and CEO of Herman Miller at the time had the foresight to ship it regardless. This is his explanation:

“We are a research-driven product company. We are not a market-driven company. It means that we intend, through the honest examination of our environment and our work and our problems, to meet the unmet needs of our users with problem-solving design and development
- Max Depree (Chairman and CEO of Herman Miller, Inc)
Notice that Depree clearly understood the role and limitation of Market Driven data. He had the courage to forge forward and now the chair he oversaw is now in the MoMA. Yet that wasn't blind-faith, it was because he knew his guys *knew* users. The product was too disruptive to get an accurate Market Target Group rating.


So why did I write this post? Was it simply just because I wanted to talk about the amazing chair that I've sat on for far, far too long? No. I believe that today far too many people looking at Design Thinking confuse interviewing Users for their Insights with asking consumers their Opinions. In Design Thinking, especially at the Empathy stage, I would never give a survey on a final product and ask them to rate from 1 to 10 what they thought of Comfort, AestheticsUsability and then using some fancy math to determine how to optimize those parameters.

It sounds cliche but simply Users don't know what they want. As Design Thinkers if we get "Lazy" and try to get end-users to design products, we will never get Disruptive Innovation. At best all we can is slightly better, incremental development (ie a prettier iPhone, etc). At worse we get something totally unusable, like the Car built for Homer.

"A camel looks like a horse that was planned by a committee"
- Sir Alec Issigonis
Users are great at being Users, but usually are very poor Designers. That's why even in Usability Testing we *never* ask questions which lead a user to offer an alternative design. Questions like: "Oh, so you don't like that button? How would you like to see the button?", rather we're about the why: "Oh, so what makes that button difficult to use/hard-to-find/etc?".

So what are Users good for? Why are they SO vital to Design Thinking? They are vital because:

"It's the user's most primal needs that drive our insights which are the basis for our designs."

         User Need ==> Insights ==> Design Ideas

Users don't mean to, but often they aren't trained to separate 'actions' from 'intents', 'opinions and prejudices' from 'feelings and raw emotion'. When we do Design Thinking practically in our teams, we often are asking each other what is the "raw" feeling there, what is the underlying motivation. (Think: Toyota/Kaizen's 5 Why type of approach).

As Malcolm Gladwell put it in Blink:

“The participants in the early experiments weren't telling the testers how they really felt; they were telling them how they were prejudiced against something so different from their experience.”

- Malcom Gladwell (Blink - 2005) 

If you haven't done so already, I suggest looking at my previous blog on Levels of Insight. As we move up the hierarchy we need to become more and more empathetic, it's not up to the user, but the Design Thinker to be properly trained and educated in how to extract those insights. We need to asking the right questions and tune-out the noise.

To become a great Designer I believe you need to ensure that you are not falling in the trap of being caught up with lower insights, fraught with prejudice and fear, but are mining the more deep-seated core "needs" which will drive those monumental "insights". To be honest it's hard work...

    User Interviews != Market Research Panels

If you want to "do" Design Thinking correctly, spend the time upfront with doing single User Interviews that will drive your Empathy stage. Use those interviews to drive your ultimate single Character Composite and then create your Point-of-View and How-Might-We statements in your Define stage.

To end off off, if you also haven't seen the video from the late Bill Stumpf from the Herman Miller sit, it's just great. His best quote is:
"I enjoy myself.. and I do it through Design" -  Bill Stumpf (1936-2006)
(Not surprisingly the video doesn't mention any of the difficulties that Malcolm Gladwell outlined in Blink. It almost makes you think that users loved it on the 1st try! However we know that wasn't really the case. However history and the 'real' market have definitely vindicated Bill Stumpf,  Donald Chadwick and Max Depree.)

Let's get to "WOW". Hope that helps...

Wayne Pau

p.s. Besides reading, Blink and looking at the HM site, another great article on Aeron is on Barkham Office Furniture website here: