I’m not really a huge Henry Ford fan. While you have to respect his business acumen and innovation, it’s really hard to see past his anti-semitism and support of Nazi Germany prior to the US entering WWII.
But one thing he did that I do like, is provide the world with this quote:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
And then decades later, Steve Jobs came along and echoed a similar sentiment:
“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Often times, we are too reliant on asking people what they want. Or what they think they want. Or whether they would like some abstract idea. Notice that Steve Jobs didn’t say “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show them a concept board.”
The problem is context. Even if you have a great idea, without the proper context consumers cannot imagine how a new idea/product/service fits into their lives.
One example of this from my life is tablet computers. In 2005, when I was in grad school, our IT strategy professor gave us a lecture about tablet computing. He demonstrated tablets by running his whole class on something like this:
That was a state of the art tablet at the time. It was essentially a laptop where you could swivel the screen around and fold it over the keyboard then write on the screen with a stylus. It was a terrible experience. It was heavy, not terribly fast and really, offered nothing that regular laptops didn’t (other than writing on the screen – and who really needed that?).
And then came this:
And it blew every other tablet out of the water. It revitalized the whole concept of tablets. And I’m sure that Steve Jobs didn’t ask customers if they wanted tablets. He looked at how people use technology and made a device that enhanced their experience. If he had asked people whether they wanted a tablet or what they thought of tablets, they would have imagined that Toshiba above and said “no thanks.”
But my absolute favorite example of this is text messaging. In 2001 I participated in a focus group about text messaging. Because as strange as it seems now, back in 2001, in the US, not many people were using text messaging. Back then, I was using one of these:
It pretty much just made calls and stored phone numbers. So when I was told that I would be able to use a phone to send text messages to people I thought it was a terrible idea. I couldn’t imagine typing on a number pad to send one-way messages. I couldn’t imagine when I would WANT to use text messages. I conceded that if I was in class, or in a loud bar, it might be more convenient than making a phone call, but I couldn’t grasp the idea of sending someone a message and not getting an instantaneous response like you do when you are actually talking to them.
And now? Last month I sent 393 text messages. Thats 13 a day. How much did I talk on the phone? 135 minutes. 4 minutes a day. I hate talking on the phone and pretty much only talk on the phone with my parents and customer service reps.
21 year old me thought that talking on the phone was more convenient than texting and waiting for a reply. But now, most people would agree that calling, waiting for the other person to answer, making pleasantries, and then finally getting to the reason for the call is much more inconvenient.
So stop asking your customers what they want. And definitely stop asking your clients what they think their customers want. Get out there and meet your customers. Spend time with them. Observe them. Talk to them about how they solve problems in their life. And then take what you learn and figure out how to solve those problems better.
But unless you make faster horses, don’t ask them what they want.