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How to discover what users NEED and not what they WANT?

The question "What are your favorite counter-intuitive principles or ideas within UX?" has interesting responses from DA

One I like is Steve Jobs' opinion of focus groups. "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.").

and Leah

The Steve Jobs comment reminds me of Henry Ford quote “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

If we can't always ask people what they like, the challenge is to make things that they will like even if some forms of research don't back our ideas up.

Jakob Nielsen suggested here

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

What can you add to Nielsen's suggestions? Observing people instead of listening to them is a good way of gathering data. However, this doesn't seem to be enough for Henry Ford to figure out that faster horses isn't the solution.


11 Answers 11


Henry Ford, as an inventor, was driven by technological advances. He took a new technology and applied it to a problem that people had.

Mapped to UI Design that means that besides user research - which gives you information about peoples' problems - you also need to be aware of technological possibilities, UI Patterns, other good solutions etc.

Only if you are aware of the possibilites you can be creative and adapt what you know about possible solutions to the user's problems.

  • Very true. A UX team lacking any forward-thinking UI developers is a crippled UX team.
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 15, 2011 at 18:19
  • Yes - technology new possibilities but also new limitations motivate UX innovation. The small screen, 'fat fingers' and keyboard taking screen-real-estate are all driving UX changes. Even the iPhone's styling of using a black background is motivated by increasing battery life. Commented May 29, 2011 at 11:01

There are 2 ways of advancing in a given field: incrementally or by a breakthrough. Focus groups will only give you the incremental kind. A creative expert is required to invent a new type of whatever.

I think that people that really master their field, get a 6th sense of what is going to work, and only need user testing to justify their work to bosses or stakeholders. Jobs is a great example. Call it intuition, mastery or wizzardry.

  • 1
    And as Mr Dyson found out a 'creative expert' also needs a lot of persistance.
    – PhillipW
    Commented Jul 22, 2010 at 10:58
  • 1
    Of course you don't become an expert automagically. Hard work, experience and some talent are needed.
    – luna1999
    Commented Jul 22, 2010 at 15:38
  • There's a long history of this kind of thing of course: The Eames would probably be doing exciting things with digital devices if they were around today: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_and_Ray_Eames Charles (1907–1978) and Ray (1912–1988) Eames (pronounced /ˈiːmz/) were American designers, who worked in and made major contributions to modern architecture and furniture. They also worked in the fields of industrial and graphic design, fine art and film. – PhillipW 1 min ago
    – PhillipW
    Commented Jul 22, 2010 at 20:37

While your example focuses on 2 specific products, it is worth noting that about 75% of the time your innovations will be around services instead of products.

That said, it is okay that your customers don't know what they want. If they did, you wouldn't have a job. There is no magic involved. As a UX specialist, your duty is to use research (focus groups or ethnographic) to uncover user problems and then help craft solutions.

Steve Jobs took a common complaint that phones, and their endless menus, were too complex and simplified the UI so that anyone from toddlers to baby boomers could access more functionality. Before iPhones there was research showing most users never got beyond the top menu level or two.

Henry Ford heard complaints that horses weren't fast enough, etc. The point is that you can build what a customer wants by looking at what they currently have and filling the holes between that and what they want the product or service to do. That gap is where you come in, and how well you can bridge is what makes you a UX professional.

Good UX isn't easy, it is putting in the time to research and having the discipline to execute. Hope that helps!


“It’s not about pop culture, and it’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t. We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do.” - Steve Jobs

It's not about research. Observing customers is a good thing, but for exploration, not for validation. You question sounds like, "How does one become an artist/inventor/creator of something good versus a hack who makes stuff people don't care about?"

If everyone made amazing products/services, then only a few would make extra-special-amazing products or services. It's a bell curve of talent. If you want to be more to the kickass side, you have to change something and see what happens.


I read a post the other day telling that listening to the users is harmful and useless, but I strongly disagree. The problem with things that become hype is that usually there are a lot of people practicing it in the wrong way.

Ford tells that "If I asked my customers what they want, they would have said better horses".

But stop to think. When Ford realized that people wanted better horses, he built a car. He was smart enough to realize that people did not want a faster horse, but a faster way to move, a faster transport.

The work of a user experience analyst is just like of a psychologist, you don't develop what the users tell you to develop, you go to the places the users are and try to understand needs that they don't even know they have and then you create something based on this assumption (sorry my english, I'm from Brazil).


I think it's just a matter of making sure one isn't designing around user opinions. Instead design around all the other factors involved...user's tasks, their behaviors, user testing results, business objectives, best practices, etc.

We do know what people want: a user experience that isn't annoying. ;)


Observation is a good start. We research trends, other products and technologies to see what works (and doesn't work) for others in similar situations.

It is a bit like being a detective.

There is a blog post Every User Lies on Coding Horror, that talks about why you need to observe what people do not ask them.

The Coding Horror post says the lies are not intentional:

People lie not because they're all evil liars (although a few inevitably will be), but because they're usually lying to themselves in some way. Some lies are useful. Small social "white" lies grease the skids of social reality. Penetrating this veil of lies and intentions is one of the central themes of the excellent television show House, M.D.
...Instead of asking users if they love your software-- of course they love your software, it'd be rude to tell the people responsible just how mind-numbingly awful it really is-- do what Gregory House does. Observe whether or not they use the software, and how they use it. Rely on that behavioral data to design your software, and not the lies of your users, however well intentioned they may be.


I disagree, Henry Ford used observation just the same. He saw the task that people wanted to get from A to B quicker. He solved the problem by making cars cheap enough for most people. It is still observation of the task.

  • Henry Ford's observation led him to know the problem (need for faster transportation). Something else led him to know the solution (cars instead of faster horses, that people would've asked for).
    – Allan Caeg
    Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 12:08

People generally do know what they like - however, we don't always know the reasons why we like something.

Perhaps by asking '[..] how do we make things people will like?', you're asking the wrong question. The motivation to behind designing any kind of product shouldn't be to design something that's liked. I think there are two more important factors.

  1. All people have practical goals and aspirations. If you create things that allow them to achieve these goals and aspirations with a minimal amount of trouble, there's a good chance your users will be happy ...
  2. However, the key is to remain sympathetic to the fact that people have emotional goals and aspirations. Apple is intensely focused on this idea, and I think this has played a strong part in their continued success.

I think the answer is observation and more observation. And then listening, understanding what the issues that the user faces are. But you don't simply do what they say and what they ask for - you hear their issues and propose solutions, and you carry on listening and watching until you understand the real issues.

Henry Ford - I can surmise - listened to people wanting faster horses, watched them travelling places, and came up with an idea to resolve the real issue - that people wanted to get places faster. Once you understand the real issues, there is a chance to find some real solutions. Of course it is much easier to just do what people ask for, becasue the cost - in time and money - of doing it properly is very high.


Inspire UX has a wonderful related quote:

"Design is really about the way products and services come to life. The companies that build the most enduring relationships with customers often do so by creating an environment where design flourishes. They have leadership that embraces design, executives who trust their gut and their employees as much as they trust all the data they receive abut their business. To really grasp design is to intuit what customers want, often before customers even know what they want it. That’s not something you can learn in a focus group or an online survey.” – Jay Greene

Sorry for the double answer, I just thought this fits here and it's not related to my original answer. Besides, inspireUX is just awsome ;)

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