spin that wheel

One of Apple’s most iconic and successful pieces of interaction design has sadly become subject of a fundamentally flawed piece of reasoning that’s often banded about in design meetings:

“If Apple had asked users what they wanted when they were designing the iPod, they never would have invented with the iPod thumbwheel.”

This seems to have become a catch-all argument for not user-testing, ignoring the user feedback and research that they do have but worst of all, to justify their own swishy yet ill thought out design concepts that have no grounding in user need.

Jobs talks about this idea:

“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… So you can’t go out and ask people, you know, what the next big [thing.] There’s a great quote by Henry Ford, right? He said, ‘If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me “A faster horse.”

Jobs affirms the importance of knowing what users want and goes on to say that users don’t know what they want. However, replace “horse” with “mode of transport” in the Ford quote and you’ve got a powerful user insight.

Apple are great at coming up with innovative solutions that users want, but they do it well because they’re just as good at identifying and analysing the problem. This would be impossible if they were out of touch with user.

The thumbwheel was not invented by ignoring what users want. If you asked a user whether they’d like an easy way to navigate through long lists of tracks, they’d say “hell yes”. Apple would have observed pain-points around this task when they looked at  the existing market. They saw the problem as an opportunity and their solution was successful because it answered the problem.

Talking to users and observing their behaviour are essential in identifying interaction problems. Of course users aren’t going to tell you the solution, but probe a bit and they might just help you come up with it yourself.

Without getting to the bottom of the interaction problem, the design solution is always going to be “a faster horse”, but most importantly, design that isn’t rooted in solving user’s problems is a car that wont start, no matter how swishy the concept.

About the author

I am a UX Consultant and Creative Technologist interested in interaction, mobile, e-commerce, UX strategy and many other design-related things

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