I was recently presenting to a senior executive at an enterprise software company on research we had conducted with potential buyers of his product, when he brought up the well-worn (but likely untrue) quote from Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Whether innovation is best when tech-driven, customer-insight-driven or genius-driven is a perennial debate, in which I conclude the right answer is all of the above. But I do want to address the “faster horse” comment because it is based on a logical fallacy.
The first mistake is to assume that consumer research is asking customers what they want. It’s not. In my two decades as a product strategist and product manager, I have definitively proved that you can’t ask customers what they want and hope to get breakthrough product ideas. If you ask customers about existing categories of products and services, they will typically give you the specs of the industry’s “best-in-class” product at that moment, which you likely already know through competitive analysis and product teardowns. And if you ask people about new product categories that they haven’t yet experienced (think home robots or space travel), they tend to revert to metaphors from science fiction. What customers can explain is how they do things today, or what problems they solve with which tools, and where they struggle. With observational design research you can spot things that customers themselves are unaware of. So while you can’t outsource the hard work of dreaming up new products and services to your customers—that’s your job—you can use what they tell you as meaningful input to create that ground-breaking new product or service.
Which brings me back to that “faster horse.” If the Ford team had asked and received this feedback, any good product manager trained in human-centered design would find quite a bit to work with. The customer didn’t say they wanted a more comfortable horse, or a larger horse to carry the whole family, or a more intelligent horse that could get to its destination without a rider. No, they wanted a faster horse. A good follow-on question would be whether it’s really a faster horse they want, or a horse with greater endurance that can go farther without resting, getting to the final destination sooner. Raw speed or range at speed? And so on. Ford and his car making team would have been able to prioritize their feature development based on that feedback, which could have led to even more dynamic outcomes around fuel efficiency, speed and overall design.
The fact of the matter is that by circumventing customer feedback, many companies are really just sprinting toward what ends up being a failed product. Consider Segway, which recently stopped production having sold just 140,000 units over its entire 20 year life. Its failure shows that a market-changing product only takes off if it actually solves some unmet need for the people who are going to use it, ideally at a price point that matches the problem, with a learning curve that the customer finds worthwhile.
So, the next time you’re evaluating an innovative new technology, novel design or elegant strategy, take the time to understand your customers and how it might fit into their lives. Human-centered design doesn’t mean asking your customers what they want, it means ensuring that what you make fits into their lives. Taking the time to conduct customer research might just increase your chances of success.