There’s an unverified quote attributed to Henry Ford, who brought the automobile to the masses:
“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Whether he really said it or not, this quote is often used to diminish the relevance of talking to customers when creating cutting edge products or services. The implication is that people only know what they want after you’ve shown it to them.
But even if that’s true, it’s missing the point of customer development (or user research). Customers may not be able to imagine breakthrough solutions, but they’re exceptionally good at knowing what hurts.
So why the disconnect?
One argument I’ve heard is that truly innovative products are considered ridiculous when first proposed, and it’s only after people become familiar with the concept that it seems obviously useful. I disagree.
Consider the automobile itself. It’s predecessor wasn’t the horse, it was the train. In fact, the train was called the “iron horse.” And the train was a refinement of the horse-drawn carriage. The real innovation wasn’t the automobile or the assembly line, it was the internal combustion engine, allowing one person to operate a vehicle without adding coal to a burner while driving.
But all of these solved similar problems - moving people and supplies from one place to another in a faster, more reliable way than was previously available. New technologies allowed for better or more convenient solutions, and new processes helped drive down the costs of those solutions.
Bringing this back to the “faster horses” quote - if you asked people in your target market today about their daily problems, hopes, or fears, you’d get similar answers as Henry Ford might have, “I need more time, more money, less suffering, more security.” Now, customers often use “solution speak” to describe problems, like maybe “I wish my horses were faster”, or “I wish I could pack more into my pull cart, but my horse can only drag 400 pounds.”
But it’s our job as entrepreneurs to clearly understand the problems, pain, and frustration behind the “solution speak” and to use our creativity, empathy, and knowledge to build a solution that solves these issues better than maybe our customers can even imagine. That can be hard, but not as hard as ignoring customers and potential users only to discover no one wants a solution to the problem you’ve solved.
And it might take a while to perfect that solution. The first cars were noisy, hard to maintain, dangerous, and more expensive than a horse. But by the time Ford simplified them with a single design, in a single color, with a repeatable manufacturing process, they solved the travel problem better than your basic horse, and were more convenient than waiting for the next train.
Of course, we’re still solving the travel problem, thus the commercial jet, helicopters, faster cars, and new fuel sources. If we could just magically teleport from one place to another, that would change the game again.
So let’s stop blaming customers for “not knowing what they want”, and do what we were meant to do as entrepreneurs - first seek to understand, then to amaze and delight. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for my hovercraft.Like this blog? Subscribe by Email