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Posted: 28 November 2022
By Alastair Lee

User-centred. Not user-led.

The term 'user-led' implies that the product team is led by what users say they want. In this post Alastair explains why that's dangerous, and why 'user-centred' is a better term.

Who's leading?

I’ve had a few conversations with clients recently where they’ve used the term ‘user-led’. They say things like “We definitely need to become more user-led as an organisation”.

Of course I welcome the sentiment,  but I don’t think ‘user-led’ is the right term. I prefer ‘user-centred’. Am I being pedantic? Probably, but let me explain.

The problem with ‘user-led’

To state the obvious, ‘user-led’ implies that the product team is led by the user and simply delivers what the user wants. If the user prefers option B, they go with option B.

This is dangerous for a few reasons

  1. Users don’t know what they want. Users know what they are trying to do (buy a ticket, find a song, kill some time). And they know where they have problems (hidden charges, dumb search results, clunky pay-wall). But they don’t know what the right solution is. How could they? They don’t know the product vision, the business model, the technical possibilities, the resource constraints and so on. Only the product team knows all that. Users own their needs. But the product team owns the solution. 
  2. You can’t rely solely on user research. We are massive proponents of user research. But findings from research are influenced by a range of factors, including the skills and biases of the researchers, the methods chosen and the resources applied. The more predictive the research questions are, the sketchier it all gets. Do you really want to base your product strategy on what a handful of users said they would do? No. It’s a useful input, but it’s not the answer.
  3. It reinforces stakeholder scepticism. Some stakeholders are already sceptical about user research. By going further and saying they need to be ‘user-led’ you’re bound to raise some hackles. They might mention Henry Ford saying “If I’d have asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. And they’d have a point (although it turns out there’s no evidence he actually said that). Don’t risk losing their support by using the wrong term.

The case for ‘user-centred’

The term ‘user-centred’ on the other hand is empowering. Being user-centred means recognising that the single biggest risk to a product’s success is that users don’t use it – either because they can’t see the value in it, or it’s less convenient than alternatives.

Which means it’s imperative to create a shared understanding of user-goals, needs and habits when designing solutions. And it’s vital that the team tests their solutions with users to ensure that what they’re building is hitting the target.

But it’s the product team that’s doing that solution design. Informed by users. Powered by users, even.  But not led by users.


Need help getting user-centred approaches adopted in your organisation?

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