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Customer-led design won’t lead you somewhere new

Customer-led design is an accepted norm these days; a go-to approach for innovation teams. But there’s a fundamental flaw in customer-led design when you’re trying to take a real leap forward: customers can’t lead you there.

Mark Wilson

Managing Partner & CEO

If I asked you “how will you feel about X in a year’s time?” what would your answer be?

Obviously, your response will vary according to what ‘X’ refers to. Let’s start with something you might call an everyday preference or taste.

Imagine you, like me, really don’t like gin, and never have. It’s very unlikely that you’ll feel differently about it in a year’s time. It’s kind of a permanent state in your life and your “I won’t touch the stuff” response to my question is likely to be a pretty good prediction as a result.

Now what about if ‘X’ referred to something you get satisfaction and utility from, like a fancy watch. You know that it’s useful today, and you know that it will continue to tell the time in a year, so you’ll still expect to feel pretty good about your watch then too.

At my third time of asking, I ask you about something that you don’t currently have in your life at all. It’s a new app: it connects to your bank account and takes money out, whenever it feels like it, then transfers it into the app developers’ account to hold there for you.

How would you feel about that in a year’s time? You might be like the majority of people who would say “I wouldn’t like it”. You might be one of the curious, one of the outright damning, or perhaps simply a dismissive. You might be one of the handful that love the idea in principle, but you’ll wait and see how it turns out.

How safe are your answers?

Now imagine I’m investing a ton of money on the basis of what you tell me. Should I believe your answers? Or should I ask a thousand more people and believe the majority? No, and no. Because, when we are projecting beyond the immediate future, people are infuriatingly (and wonderfully) unreliable.

Let’s project forward a year and look at why each of my examples can lead to very different outcomes than expected.


Over the following year, you were introduced to a gin cocktail made with chilli (thanks Jess) that tastes great. Your conviction that “I’ll hate it then as much as I do now” is no longer true. Your lifelong preference was disrupted by one simple intervention and your perception of gin has changed. You’ll be more likely to try other things with gin now.

The watch

Since I asked you about your watch, you decided to buy a smartwatch that tracks your fitness stats. You bought it to wear when you workout, with your Swiss masterpiece firmly on your wrist the rest of the time.

Except that didn’t happen. The extra utility the smartwatch provided meant that you progressively wore it more and more. That fancy watch moved to being ‘for going out’, then it was ‘for weddings’ and finally became “where’s that watch?“.

You didn’t just buy a new watch; your whole frame of reference for what a watch is changed, and so did your behaviour. Ironically, you barely even use your smartwatch to tell the time.

The new service

And in the third example, you had no accurate frame of reference for the specific service in question, because it didn’t exist yet. However, you had a whole host of emotive responses available to step in and fill the gaps based on other things. You imagined how you’d feel about something that you had no actual experience of — based on how you feel about things you’ve previously experienced — projected that into the future, and expressed your position about it confidently.

Now, a year on, you use that service all the time. You love it in fact. Your experience of other (less sensitive) services altered your receptiveness to this new service and when it came to market you leapt at it and now it’s running in the background, taking little bits of money from your bank account all the time.

Meet year-ago-me

As you probably guessed, I feature personally in these examples. I still think gin tastes like wallpaper paste, but I’m receptive to trying it in things now. My Apple Watch rarely leaves my wrist (even for weddings) and I use Chip constantly to save money that I would otherwise never save.

Year-later-me (although they were different years in each case) behaved quite differently than year-ago-me, and that’s true of everyone. If it was your money and you were making key decisions against those questions, you’d have been led in the wrong direction to bad investments.

That word ‘led’ is where the problem lies

When people — customers — are asked questions as part of research, they generally try to respond with the best answer they can. The problem is that those answers are shaped by their past experiences: they simply draw on what they have available and sort of plot forward mentally to extrapolate how a future version of themselves will think, feel or behave.

I’m sure everyone can recognise themselves somewhere in each of those three fairly rudimentary examples I set out. In each case, you’d have answered with your own frame of reference at the time with all the best intentions. We are all, quite reasonably, a product of our experiences which we compile into a sensible answer on request.

Of course, we’re all subject to the disruptive ‘resets’ of those experiences too: when something new is introduced into an established pattern that we didn’t expect, the rules change, and we adapt. The further away we need to project, the less reliable we become — because we will have had more of those resets in the interim.

So let’s (finally) talk about customer-led design

I hope the problem with customer-led design in an innovation context is already evident, but let’s play it out a little.

Let’s start with an operational service.

Customer inputs in established sectors leads, inevitably, to homogenisation: they use ‘nearby’ references to make suggestions for improvements. They, or others like them, are also making those suggestions to your peers. Sometimes you do it better, sometimes they do, but you inevitably end up doing similar things in similar ways when you follow customer research or performance data.

In a competitive sector, this enables you to optimise and improve your current service and never stray far from the best standards of your sector. As long as you can implement the improvements quickly, you should consider this business as usual for an operating service. Being led by customers in short-term product or service development is ok.

What happens when you want to step away from your competitors substantially, or open up a new category entirely?

Those near-field and historic experiences are useless at best and disastrous at worst. We are never directly led to take leaps forward by customers because, in the nicest possible way, they don’t know where they might go next. Henry T Ford’s ‘faster horses’ quote endures because it’s so deeply, brilliantly true. Being led by customers creates better fed and fitter horses, not an entirely new form of transport. No-one wanted that until they were shown it.

Customer-led design has no place in real innovation

I can hear the intakes of breath now, so I’ll say it differently: customer-led design sterilises the innovation process. It’s not the customer’s job to invent what they’ll want instead of what they have today, it’s ours — the people responsible for making big leaps happen. That includes anyone with the right combination of vision, imagination and courage: visionary leaders, imaginative creatives, skilled concept designers or impassioned people with a brilliant idea.

Customers follow brilliant innovations, they don’t lead us to them — because usually, they didn’t know they wanted them, or even that they might be possible. We have to do the work to give them somewhere new to go: we must invent on their behalf if we really want to change the game.

I stole part of that sentence from Jeff Bezos (on the Amazon Blog):

Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better and a constant desire to delight customers drives us to constantly invent on their behalf.

‘Invent on their behalf’. That’s a pretty bold statement for the most data-fuelled business on the planet, but it’s true: they optimise with data, and they innovate with insights and imagination. As should everyone. Talk with people, listen to people and observe people all the time to be inspired and to get ideas — just don’t expect them to lead you to where you need to take them.

Don’t rely on customer-led design if you want a game-changing breakthrough. Create something they didn’t know they wanted. Invent for them. That is real innovation.

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