Does Customer-centric Design Thinking Impede Innovation?

I think it was Steve Jobs who famously stated something to the effect that customers didn’t know what they wanted, so he had to come up with it for them.

Interestingly enough, that’s when Apple was at its most innovative, secretly putting products like the iPhone together with very little customer input, and then releasing it to the world to awe.

The same can be said for companies like Twitter – it was initially designed as a tool to allow podcasters to communicate which their listeners, and look at what its become. I doubt that there was any customer feedback in the creation of Twitter – a few engineers just had an idea, put it up and released it to the world. These two examples are markedly NOT customer-centric design thinking, which insists that customers are brought into the design process early and often, and highly prized as sources to inform the design of a product, all the way through the process.

Wait a sec though. Apple has recently been slammed for no longer being as innovative as they were, and customer-centric design thinking has become the order of the day in many ideation sessions. Some have gone so far as to say that it isn’t design thinking unless you have customers in the room. But let’s question that for a second.

Are we saying that we can’t develop innovative new products and services without the customer in the room? Do we need to have the customer fully integrated into the ideation process?

There are plenty of innovations which didn’t receive any customer feedback until they were out the door, and those tend to be genuinely disruptive. Is it possible that the lack of innovation that we are seeing might be due to the increase in design thinking and customer centricity? Will customers allow us to create disruptive innovations, or will they keep us in iteration mode, fearing too much change?

This thinkging may sound like heresy, but is it possible that customer-centric design thinking is holding us back from important innovation?

Maybe Steve Jobs was right – perhaps we can’t develop truly disruptive innovation if we involve the customer too much – since the customer only knows what they already know, and maybe purposely pulling us back to a less disruptive place. Unless they are carefully selected, they are not visionaries – they may not live in the future – involving the customer in the design thinking process, unless its a specific kind of customer, may result in the dulling of any disruptive and innovative aspects of the product.

If design thinking were de rigueur back when Apple was envisioning the iPhone, would it have been as magical a product? If Twitter had used customer-centric design thinking, would the product be as successful?

I’m not dissing design thinking, it has a place (and it is usually a part of most of our workshops), as does customer centricity, but is it possible that customer-centric design thinking may have stunted genuinely innovative and disruptive new products?

When it comes to disruptive innovation, maybe the customer is not always right.