I’m sure many of you will have read or heard the famous quote attributed to Henry Ford, “if I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”. This is usually quoted in the context of radical or breakthrough innovation, justifying an approach that doesn’t rely on customer feedback. A famous quote by Steve Jobs is also used in the same context, stating that by the time Apple had delivered what people wanted it would have been obsolete.
I’ve heard Henry’s quote many times at conferences. Unfortunately there is often an air of superiority attached to it, along the lines of “we know better” or “a customer won’t understand our brilliant technology”. It’s also often in the context of a solution looking for a problem.
There is a certain logic here, how can customers give an opinion on something for which they have no frame of reference? And here is where the danger lies, because, assuming Henry did say it (and to be fair there is a lot of doubt that he ever did); he chose the wrong question.
If Henry had dug deeper into the lives of people who rode horses or travelled in horse-drawn vehicles, he would have discovered a lot of pain points. For starters, I don’t suppose many people enjoyed mucking out a stable first thing in the morning, or stepping round piles of steaming horse muck in the streets. They wouldn’t have liked the general unpleasantness and lack of cleanliness. They wouldn’t have liked the poor maneuverability. They wouldn’t have appreciated the difficulty of trying to organise traffic flow with vehicles that weren’t totally predictable in the direction they followed.
They wouldn’t have liked the general exposure to the elements. They wouldn’t have liked the blacksmith’s bills, the vet bills or the time taken to refuel. They wouldn’t have liked the associated animal cruelty. They wouldn’t have liked the danger of trying to cross the street or the hazards posed by horses that had been spooked. And yes, they wouldn’t have liked the slow speed.
Henry would therefore have uncovered a lot of insights derived from an understanding of how people moved around, and what they thought and felt about it.
I think it is dangerous to take an approach which ignores customers who you assume won’t understand the nature of the new product or service. There are always clues, learning and most of all insights that can help to light the path of innovation development. There are always ways to prototype elements of the offering to understand behaviour and potential acceptance; to learn and optimize the approach using Lean Startup principles.
So why do Apple do so well without any apparent customer research? There’s really no point justifying a lack of customer input by pointing to Apple, there are very few companies who can take the same approach. In addition, there is extensive and rigorous testing internally by people who are real everyday users.
In the context of incremental innovation where you want to improve an existing product or service, the Henry Ford question is perfectly applicable. You can ask people what they want in a situation where they have a context, a frame of reference, experience of the category and opinions to offer. You are then likely to get a very good steer on your proposed new product as well as a comparison to what is already available.
Even in the case of the most radical, surprising and revolutionary innovation, customers can still be very useful in the development cycle through early and late prototype testing, enabling course correction and optimization to take place.
So in the context of radical or breakthrough innovation, customers will find it difficult to know what they want. They do know what they think, feel and do, so ask them. Don’t ask the Henry Ford question, or you’ll get a Henry Ford answer.