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Harley-Davidson President and CEO Jim Ziemer, Harley-Davidson Annual Report, 2007

My latest interactions column, Ships in the Night (Part I): Design Without Research? has just been published.

While user-research-eschewing Apple is everyone’s poster child for “design for yourself,” I find Harley-Davidson to be a more compelling example (although I may be comparing Apple(s) and oranges). At Harley, Willie G. Davidson is the grandson of the original Davidson. Senior vice president and chief styling officer, he is known as Willie G. And he looks exactly like a guy who rides a Harley: big, bearded, and leather-clad. If we judge a bike by its fairing, the designer is the customer. That’s part of the Harley brand: In a recent Harley-Davidson annual report, executives appear next to their bikes, and we know that they all ride. A crucial part of Willie G.’s role is to preserve the legacy of the brand; the company communicates that it is (and always has been) part of the culture for which it’s designing. People at Harley, we believe, use the products and live the lifestyle. But underneath it all is a sense that Harley-Davidson, through its history, has created the brand (i.e., the products and their meaning) in partnership with its customers. For all the tribal connectedness Apple has facilitated, the company itself is not a participant. It is a benefactor.

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Related: Steve Portigal speaks at User Research Friday – Design and Research, Ships in the Night?

Update: Ships in the Night (Part II): Research Without Design? is now available

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