brand, community

User-led innovation can’t create breakthroughs. Really?

Earlier this week, Fast Company posted an article by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen (thanks to Gunnar Hellekson for sending it my way) that may be of interest to folks seeing success with their open source and open innovation efforts.

The article is entitled “User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs; Just Ask Apple and IKEA” and here’s how it starts:

Companies should lead their users, not the other way around.

The user is king. It’s a phrase that’s repeated over and over again as a mantra: Companies must become user-centric. But there’s a problem: It doesn’t work. Here’s the truth: Great brands lead users, not the other way around.

Jens and Rasmus aren’t the first to preach this sermon, Henry Ford (apocryphally, at least) had a go at it about 100 years ago. And Steve Jobs has famously used Henry Ford’s “faster horse” quote to describe Apple’s philosophy about market research for years.

To make their case, Jens and Rasmus use Apple and IKEA as case studies of brands that have done very well by not listening to their users, and in the article they document conversations with insiders at each company.

According to Jens and Rasmus, Apple doesn’t waste time asking users for opinions. Instead, Apple focuses on designing great products they think people will love (Steve Jobs pretty much says as much here). The other example, IKEA, is guided by an unspoken philosophy of “we show people the way.”

I rather enjoyed this article, and believe it makes some interesting points (I especially liked the “three types of icons” categorization, and couldn’t agree more on the role of vision, values, and culture). I’m certainly no fan of market research as an all-encompassing answer to everything either.

But I do spend quite a bit of time developing community-based strategies for organizations, including testing user-driven innovation approaches, and I hope I’ve learned a thing or two about community-centered brand strategy over the years.

So I thought maybe I’d weigh with an alternate view on a few of the points made in the article. Here goes:

1) Using Apple and IKEA to generalize a point about how innovation breakthroughs happen is a little like saying “because chocolate tastes good, all food should taste like chocolate.”

I agree that both IKEA and Apple have superb innovation strategies… for them. But each brand is different. For every brand modeled after Apple or IKEA, there is another that has seen success with an approach that takes user ideas into account. I happened to spend 10 years of my career working for one such company.

But there are plenty of other examples, even beyond the open source technology world. Stefan Lindegaard’s 15inno open innovation blog does a nice job of highlighting many examples of organizations pursuing innovation with the help of user and customer communities. IDEO has built a very successful business around a human-centered approach as well.

2) Getting user feedback ≠ taking user feedback.

Jens and Rasmus jump to a conclusion that I probably wouldn’t reach myself. They argue that it is actually harmful to listen to users and that innovative brands don’t care about what their users want. They make four key points 1) Users insights can’t predict future demand 2) User-centered processes stifle creativity 3) User focus makes companies miss out on disruptive innovations 4) User-led design leads to sameness.

I agree that these four things can be traps organizations fall into when taking in user input (see: focus groups). But getting users involved in the creation process doesn’t mean you must blindly take that feedback and implement it as if you were taking orders. In my experience, most good user-driven efforts are much more sophisticated than that.

3) Do Apple and IKEA really not care about what their users want? Really?

I’d be very surprised if either Apple or IKEA would agree with the assertion that innovative brands don’t care what their users want. On the contrary, I expect Apple and IKEA care very much about what their users want—they just think they understand what the users will want better than the users do.

Both companies are expert at anticipating the desires of their user base. If you are really good at this type of prognosticating you can produce ground-shaking, market-making innovations.

But it is not the only way to do it.

Watching Apple and Google compete in 2011, we are currently witnessing a classic battle between two great innovation strategies, one open, one closed. Both are producing fantastic results (I’ve written about this battle previously, here and here).

Overall, I think creating controversy was probably the intent of this article, to get people thinking and discussing. So job well done. But I’m not sure there is only one path to innovation breakthroughs.

Am I wrong? What do you think?

[This article originally appeared on]

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


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