So my friend today reminded me of Henry Ford's saying "If I'd listened to customers, I'd have given them a faster horse". This got me thinking.
All the time I get asked by people outside the design group to involve users early in the design process; why not invite them to the brainstorms; why not get them to critique the design; why not this and why not that. I mean, it almost seems like I might as well hire users as opposed to designers to do the job -- apparently, they know themselves better. But we know this is not going to work. Users are great users, but not necessarily great designers. I mean, there is a talent to designing, and one should respect that.
Here is where the fine line needs to be walked. Users are great at behaving like users, yet they are not very good at telling you what would really solve their problem (just get me a faster horse). They cannot think outside of the current paradigm (as Thomas Kuhn might say). Macs would be nothing more than awesome typewriters if we had listened to users all along. (do you remember the dedicated "word processors" of the day, computers that could only do word processing; unbelievable).
(new part in this post: So I realize I have a story to tell here. When I was an undergraduate at MIT I decided I wanted to take a class with Thomas Kuhn. I mean, this is the guy who coined the term "paradigm", a brilliant guy who had shifted our thinking about our society's knowledge and how it goes sometimes in incremental development, but sometimes it undergoes revolutions, or "paradigm shifts"... his work was admired throughout MIT... So anyways, I finally find a class he's taking and enroll on it, and try to find the room for the first wednesday that it takes place... and I'm running around in building 20, which is a bunch of army barracks constructed during WWII to house scientists working on improving radar so it can be used by aircraft, as opposed to ships...
(picture from MIT libraries)
this is where linguistics at MIT was started and where Noam Chomsky had his offices for 3 decades... so anyways, I get to the class 20 minutes late, and the door is shut, and I wonder whether I should knock or walk away, so I decide to knock... silence... an old man opens the door, Thomas Kuhn, and asks me who I am and what I want... a few students sit inside... I explain my interest and he manages to dissuade me, I should focus on my senior thesis he says, there will be plenty of time later on to take other classes, focus on what I'm doing, make my contribution... wise words... and that was the only time I met him)
Returning to my thread, users are fantastic as a source of information on what the issues are. But we must respect basic experimental practices. Think Aloud methodology describes what one can ask a subject to do (please think aloud while doing this task) and what one cannot ask them to do because it would produce contrived data (more accurately, users would produce introspective reports, which tend to be constructed for the purpose of the experiment and not a true representation of what goes in the subject's mind).
In brief, the think aloud method says (it's a verified method of cognitive investigation) that you should ask a subject to carry out a task while thinking out loud. The subject will use their mental schemas to solve the task, and when verbalizing will expose how they are thinking ("let's see... to multiply 21 times 75, I'll do 20 times 75, which is 750 times 2 or 1500, and then I'll add 75 to it... so it's 1575..."). With this verbalization you get a window into their thought process: heuristics, deconstruction of a multiplication into pieces, final assembly, etc...
Now, if I asked a user to explain to me how he solves multiplication problems, he might tell me he writes numbers in two rows and applies the typical algorithm. But we know this is not the case, as clearly often, he solves multiplication problems in a different way. The problem here is that we asked him to introspect his own mind, and we got an invalid response.
So one needs to watch what people are doing, understand their activities and goals, and design to support that, rather than ask them what they would imagine they would need (a faster horse). Mr Ford would not want us to design otherwise, I would think.