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Is the ‘User’ Always Right?

We have all heard the phrase, "The customer is always right". Coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, the sentiment is perfectly understandable in his golden era of high-end retail. But is this still the case today?

This statement bothers me because of its absolute nature. The use of the word 'always' removes the subjectivity from individual opinions on customer service. All front facing staff must follow client requests without question. It also introduces an unnecessary element of right and wrong into the relationship.

Today's consumers are much more sophisticated. Nobody wants a pandering selling process. We demand expertise and knowledge for our money. We don't simply seek to buy a product—we seek to buy the right product. We expect the retailer to do more than just give us what we 'want', we expect them to give us what we 'need', even if this means making less profit.

So how does this work in the world of UX?

Lets change the word 'customer' to 'user'. Could "The user is always right", become a valid mantra in UX Design? Should we trust the information from user-centered techniques as being 'always' right?

There is a real difference between “users” and “customers” in that we are not directly asking users what they want. The relationship is not a customer/sales-based one. As UX Designers we are observing the users’ behaviours to guide our design in order to improve the experience.

Information gathered from users should generally be trusted, but should not be considered as absolute “right”. The user must be a factor in design decisions, but not the only one. Designer training, experience and creativity must form a key pillar. Stakeholders and business goals will also need representation.

Design must remain user-centered, but not user-led. The emphasis should be on creativity and not just the implementation of results. If it were to become a process of construction based solely on gathered information then the word “design” should be removed.

For me, design is about compromise, the balance of fashion and function. UX has given greater certainty and validation to the process, but as UXers we need to also follow our imagination, it's what makes good design. We shouldn't be afraid to add value through our ideas and not exclusively rely on results to drive the process.

Old Harry was probably correct to say “always”, but perhaps we would be going too far with the instance of being “right”.

Design is subjective by its nature, it can be good or bad, it can be liked or disliked, but it is difficult to look at any design and say for certain that its absolutely right or wrong.

Asking users will tell us whether something works or not, but it's creativity that produces designs that people will love.

I always hope my UX designs make it to the end user, and I'll certainly be thinking of them along they way.

Paddy Breslin

Paddy Breslin

Paddy Breslin is a Graphic and UX designer based in Galway, Ireland. He has been working in print design and publishing for over 15 years, on the UX design journey in recent years, and loving it.

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