User-centered design is oversizing the point of view of the user. We should be careful because the users are only experts on themselves and lack a global vision.

Everybody wants to understand the user

The user, not the product or service itself, is the focus of design. A deeper understanding of the user allows companies to know what they have to offer or what must be changed, and allows designers to design more user-friendly products and services.

Companies and designers want to know who are their users, how they behave, what they want. This information is highly valuable and this is why sociologists, business intelligence analysts or customer relationship managers are being increasingly sought.

Data analysis, focus groups and observational research are basic to be in the user’s shoes, but these design techniques will be always biased by the point of view of the researcher. So designers and companies are including the user in their design processes. Co-creation, open innovation or simply listening the customer’s suggestions and complaints are very helpful to really know what the user needs.

When the user is the designer

Researching on user entrepreneurship, I found the extended opinion that users “are often better positioned than manufacturers to both recognize and commercialize an innovation given their unique, private knowledge of the market” (Kauffman Foundation, 2012). Some authors even recommend companies hiring a target end user for their executive teams (Bill Aulet, 2013).

This was so interesting that I decided to look for a real user entrepreneur. I found BB Energy Group, a Spanish startup founded by a user and, as a result of my interview, I published an article on PreScouter Journal, where you can read the whole story.

Explained in a few words, one day, while this user was sunbathing on the beach he realized that his phone battery was dead. “If I just could charge it from my deckchair…”- he though, and this is how the idea of creating a deckchair with a solar panel and a USB port was born.

Once he designed the first prototype, he offered it to the Barcelona City Council and they installed four solar deckchairs in a public square. As he told me, this was crucial for the project, since he could test the prototype with real users. But wasn’t he also a “real” user?

The user knows one user

From this experience he discovered that, in public spaces, his deckchairs where exposed to accidents, improper use and a general lack of care towards urban furniture.

His innovation had arisen from his own experience, in a context of a personal use. However, his most important customers are likely to be city councils, hotel chains and cruise companies. In these cases, the product will have a public use and –as we have seen– the end users will interact with it in a totally different manner from the one planned by the designer.

In fact, the creator of the solar deckchair is now working on designing fixed fastening bars for the solar panel and hiding the cable with the USB port inside the bars.

Designers know best the users… with their help

Perhaps the users are better positioned to detect unmet needs and “pain points”, but they lack the global vision of the end user profile. They are experts on themselves and designers know that a product has different users and different target markets.