Over the past few years, there has been a meaningful trend in the design community towards user-centered design. As with any methodology, it’s valuable to a point. User-centered design is great for designing a new toaster. But it’s not so useful in designing, say, the World Wide Web. If you asked people in 1989 what they needed to make their life better, it was unlikely that they would have said a decentralized network of information nodes that are linked using hypertext.
The danger in user-centered design is that it releases the designer of the responsibility for having a vision for the world. Why have one when we can just ask users what they want? But this is a very limiting mindset. The user sees the world as it is. Our job as builders is to create the world as it could be.
It’s not that users are less intelligent than builders. They just tend to underestimate the possibilities of a technology, and therefore suggest incremental changes. Other than Mark Zuckerberg, there were few people in 2004 who saw that Facebook could become an operating system for the web. Instead, most of its users had ideas on customizing the profile page, or sending event invitations, or whether or not to allow high school students to use the site.
There is another reason to avoid relying on your users to design your tool. The most elegantly crafted tools are those where the purpose of the tool aligns with the purpose of its builder. So the key to building great technologies is to first find your purpose. And you will not find it by polling your users.
Instead, you might be better served to spend time in places where you can see reflections of yourself. The best surfers I know seem to have a sense of exactly where the next wave will be. They craft a style about their surfing and their life that seems to come directly from the water. Artists that I admire seem to be quiet and quiet and quiet, and then come up with something beautiful, as if the beauty came from some relationship with the silence. And the great programmers I know are always taking breaks from the screen to go walk in the woods, as if they receive the most difficult parts of their programs by osmosis, and then just go to their desk to type it up.
Natural technologies arise from the heart of the builder, from a place of gift, from an intuition and purpose outside of oneself. There is something beautiful about the fact that spending time in nature helps get us there.