You probably already know the quote I’m talking about. It gets tossed around frequently in conference rooms to support all manner of decisions from taking big risks to skipping customer research in run-of-the-mill product development cycles. Usually, a reference to Steve Jobs is thrown in. Here’s the quote:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
When I first began hearing this quote soon after I started my first job in tech, it stressed me out. It also made my blood boil. Didn’t my colleagues understand how crucial it is to learn from customers, and how risky it is to overlook their input? But what seemed self-evident to me, as someone who had spent years running customer research studies, was not viewed in the same way by everyone around me. This was difficult to accept at first and felt like a major roadblock with no detour available.
However, over time, I’ve learned to view a reference to this infamous quote (which, by the way, he probably never said) as an opportunity and a welcome challenge. I’ve also learned that many of my colleagues who at first seem resistant, actually do appreciate the value of customer insights--but when faced with multiple competing demands for time and resources, it can feel difficult to fit research in.
So the challenge for researchers and product teams when faced with this quote, or a similar sentiment, is to demonstrate real value through customer insights, and find ways for research to keep pace with the ever-increasing speed of decision making at modern companies.
The Faster Horses quote isn’t actually an argument against doing research; it’s an argument against doing bad research.
One of the most common misconceptions I see when it comes to customer research is that it’s simply about asking customers what they want… adding to that, one of the most common mistakes I see among those new to research is doing just that and going no further.
It’s not that asking customers what they want is always a bad thing; but if you are trying to build a product roadmap or make complex business decisions, simply asking whether customers want a particular solution is not going to take you very far. It’s a common reason why people are turned off to research. They ask customers if they want something, customers say, “yes,” so they build it… only to find out customers don’t really value it all that much, and the launch is a flop.
The more effective approach to generating real, usable insights is to focus on customers’ problems. Even if there is already a solution in mind, focus on the problem the solution is intended to solve, then ask customers about that. Is X a problem for your customers? How big of a problem is it? How often do they encounter that problem? Would it be worth paying money to have that problem solved? What would their lives look like if that problem was solved?
Research isn’t about giving customers what they ask for; it’s about facilitating customer-informed decision-making.
Customers are not experts in product development or business strategy or any particular business’s needs. That’s why Executives, PMs, and others are hired to make those decisions. But, customers are experts in their own lives, their own problems and needs, and motivations, and their own experiences with a given product--and the professionals making the decisions about that product are not.
It’s not by disregarding customer needs, but by deeply understanding them, that the best innovators come up with groundbreaking solutions that customers could never have imagined. And the hard reality is that it’s impossible to truly understand customers without doing research. Those that believe they intuitively understand customers are either wrong or have already done extensive research to build that intuition.
It’s not by disregarding customer needs, but by deeply understanding them, that the best innovators come up with groundbreaking solutions that customers could never have imagined.
However, this is not an argument to base decisions solely on what customers say. It’s an argument to consider customer-informed decision making equally as important as, and really, a fundamental part of, data-informed decision making. Market conditions are constantly evolving and customers are evolving with them. If a company’s understanding of either is outdated, it risks falling behind. Why leave such an important and easily accessible resource untapped?
So it's critical not just to do research, but also to synthesize and share results widely across the organization, in a way that makes research insights easy to understand and act on and builds a culture of customer-informed decision making
To embed customer-informed decision-making, customer research must find ways to keep pace with product development.
As a researcher, I used to get frustrated by my stakeholders’ unwillingness to slow down and make time for research before beginning product development. Now that I work with product teams in a different capacity, I have more empathy for the demands placed on product teams and the imperative to move quickly. This doesn’t necessarily signal a lack of regard for understanding customers, but if research is to be used in decisions, researchers and product teams must find ways to fit it into the continuously moving product development cycle.
It can be challenging to get ahead of the current roadmap if a new study needs to be spun up for every question that arises, and it can be difficult to make the argument to invest time in strategic research when teams already feel already stalled out waiting for insights for their current sprint. So I encourage researchers and product teams to take advantage of the proliferation of tools that help speed up the time-to-insight and uncover quick wins by enabling continuous and instant access to customer insights. These tools, like UserLeap and others, help teams use their time more efficiently, get rapid answers to key questions, inform the direction of strategic research, and free up time to invest in studies that influence the next quarter’s planning cycle.
By showing the value of customer research, building a culture of customer-informed decisions, and keeping pace with the speed of decision making, you’ll be on your way to never hearing that Henry Ford quote again.