give customers faster horses

Innovation is driven by a desire to solve problems and meet customer needs. But how can we develop groundbreaking solutions if we don’t listen to what customers say they want?

If I got a nickel every time someone said “Don’t listen to what customers say. Watch what they do…” I’d have a lot of nickels. The “don’t listen, watch” dictum frequently appears with a partner quote attributed to Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” … and, I submit to you, the people would have been right. Good researchers and strategists know what to do with statements like these.

Ford is a (problematic) historical figure who carries weight in the business and design communities. The quote is short and crisp. It’s a good soundbite. But it’s also insulting and dis-empowering to customers, and, on top of that, it’s a mischaracterization of how well people can articulate what they want.

Look past Ford’s insulting caricature of his customers’ intelligence. They hit the nail on the head and said exactly what they wanted: faster modes of transportation.

Customers know and can talk about their experiences, problems, and needs. Figuratively speaking, it’s their job. It’s not necessarily their job to envision innovative solutions that shatter the boundaries of their current frames of reference.

To wit, it was not Ford’s customers’ job to “want” cars. It was their job to talk about their experiences with transit/travel and describe their pain points, needs, and wants in whatever way made sense to them.

It was Ford’s (or his design/engineering team’s) job to probe and understand the reasons behind these things and synthesize innovative concepts. That’s what innovation requires: observing customers, listening to what they say, and developing solutions that meet their needs in new and unexpected ways.

Maybe it’s time to retire the Ford quote. Customers and product folks deserve better.

Published by

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: