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January 27, 2021

Steve Jobs Didn't Trust Conventional Customer Research, So He Hid In the Bushes Instead

User Research

Product managers, consider this: Is your job to give customers what they want, or to give customers what they didn’t even know they wanted?

According to Steve Jobs, it was the latter: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that aren’t yet on the page.”

Jobs had a unique perspective on customer insight. On one hand, he was obsessed with getting inside their heads. In fact, he thought understanding your customers was the undeniable first step of the design process.

But on the other hand, he didn’t bother to use customer research to figure out what they thought. Especially during product development, Jobs claimed a great design team shouldn’t surveys, a focus group, or customer interviews to create products customers would love.

This begs the question: How could someone so obsessed with his customers forego customer research?

As the founder of a continuous user research company (and a bonafide fan of Jobs and his designs 🙌), this unique stance piqued my curiosity. So, I set out to understand why Jobs believed traditional customer research fell short, how he got around its limitations, and what the team could take away to create a better future for customer research.

Here’s what I learned.

Jobs believed traditional customer research gave you the wrong information

Jobs agreed customer research revealed what customers thought about something that already exists. However, he doubted the ability of customer research to help you uncover what to build next. So he did without.

According to Jobs, “the problem with market research is that it can show you what your customers think of something you show them, or it can tell you what your customers want as an incremental improvement on what you have. But very rarely can your customers predict something that they don’t even quite know they want yet.”

Incremental improvements rarely interested Jobs. Instead, he pursued bold, genuine innovation in his designs. Some companies develop products one step at a time: if our products are cheaper, faster, and prettier than the last company’s, we can outsell and make a pretty penny. Had Jobs designed for a company like that, he might not have been so averse to customer research.

But Jobs had a different vision. With distinctive designs and simple solutions, he aimed to create new product categories, new relationships to technology, and new visions of the future.

Customer research didn’t help Jobs find never-before-imagined ways to transform our relationships to technology, so he didn’t take it seriously. You can’t ask someone how you can blow their mind, after all. If they could tell you, it wouldn’t be all that mind-blowing.

You can’t ask someone how you can blow their mind, after all. If they could tell you, it wouldn’t be all that mind-blowing.

Jobs sought a deeper level of insight

Traditional customer research failed to provide Jobs with the information he was looking for: genuine insight into the way people interacted with technology and his products. He was ahead of his time for spotting the limits of the old-school approach to customer research but struggled to find a more effective option.

Fun fact: Jobs was known to eavesdrop on his customers. According to lore, he would lurk around the Apple store in Palo Alto, peering in windows and squatting in the bushes.

It’s a funny story, but it also reveals a lot about the type of information Jobs wanted from his customers (and why traditional customer research fell short). He took to these guerrilla tactics to get a direct, unmediated glimpse at how they used his tech, how they talked about it, and how they formed relationships with it.

Compare that to traditional customer research methods, like surveys. Don’t get us wrong, surveys can be a great tool to shed light on customer approval, interest, and general sentiment. However, they tend to focus on opinion over genuine experience and taken out of context, didn’t give Jobs the direct insight he craved.

While nobody at Sprig spies on our customers from the bushes (as far as we know 👀), these concerns sound familiar to us. In fact, I recently wrote about how the limitations of user research tools inspired me to start Sprig. Like Jobs, I wanted a more authentic way to observe how customers use technology and understand their thoughts and experiences while using it, not while sitting down to complete a survey.

Of course, Jobs found success without traditional customer research (and it probably wasn’t just because he hid in the bushes). So how else did Jobs get inside his customers’ heads?

In lieu of customer research, Jobs doubled down on his intuition

By all accounts, Jobs had a once-in-a-million ability to read his customers’ minds. Driven by a simple set of design pillars and this superpowerful intuition, he was able to create beloved designs that addressed customer needs in unexpected ways.

Jobs’ first design pillar was focus, and he was zen-like in his approach. According to Jobs, “Focus is about saying no.” He believed great design wasn’t about adding features, but about simplifying, reducing, and clarifying until you revealed pure product innovation.

Rather than gathering as many inputs as possible, he sought silence and solitude in order to achieve purity in his designs, and he kept prototypes under wraps, relying on his own taste and the opinions of his small team of designers to get it right. He even practiced a sort of mindful meditation. That practice, he said, allowed him to “see so much more than [I] could see before.”

After focus, Jobs’ second design pillar was empathy. He wanted to “truly understand [customer] needs better than any other company.” To most people, the obvious strategy would be to talk to your customers—to live and breathe their feedback and input—in order to develop that understanding. But Jobs isn’t most people. Instead, he trusted his gut.

To be fair, Jobs’ gut may or may not have had mind-reading powers. According to his contemporaries and admirers, Jobs had a near-supernatural ability to read his customers’ minds, predict trends, and develop “around-the-corner innovations.”

Michael A. Cusumano, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management professor, claimed this talent wasn’t just great, it was one of a kind: “Steve Jobs has this extraordinary ability to see into the future and instinctively see what people want. He’s done that consistently, in a way no one else has.”

On rare occasions, his intuition fell short

Relying on intuition—even intuition as strong as Jobs’—led to some shaky product releases. His core design vision was spot on even when he missed the mark, but the execution of a few of his products turned customers off.

Look at iTunes Ping, for example, Apple’s social music streaming platform released under Jobs in 2010. Based on the success of later services like Spotify, the vision was ahead of its time and beloved by customers (thanks to Jobs’ mind-reader intuition).

However, the platform failed within two years because of a number of unforgivable quality-of-life issues. Users were disappointed with the artist-discovery features and underwhelmed by the social-sharing features.

Pete Cashmore, a reviewer for CNN, claimed the design had promise upon release. But he also said Ping lacked some features that would make the casual consumer love the product. There’s no guarantee, but these features might have been surfaced and addressed prior to release had the product team collected more customer insights during development.

MobileMe, a sync-and-store cloud solution released in 2008, met a similar fate for similar reasons. While the heart of the design was strong enough to evolve in the industry-standard iCloud, the initial product lacked polish. The software was ripped apart for everything from technical issues to forcing users to change their email to; even Jobs regretted aspects of its launch.

Let me be clear: I don’t want to smear Jobs or his design record. He was a world-class designer, a pioneer of customer-centricity, and an inspiration to me and rest of the Sprig team. But learning from his failures is as important as learning from his successes, especially because few people have Jobs’ genius level of intuition.

My takeaway: forge new ways to understand your customers

Jobs’ distrust of traditional customer research methods makes a lot of sense to me. I strive to emulate his focus, empathy, and intuition during product development. At the same time, I’m not always confident I can read customers’ minds. Plus, I want to learn from Jobs’ missteps. When my team releases or updates a product, we want to do everything we can to ensure that we understand what is best for our users.

Jobs inspired me to look beyond traditional customer research methods and find new ways to understand the needs and experiences of customers. That’s the story behind Sprig: we developed a tool to help you get inside your customers’ heads while they’re actively using your products. Unlike Jobs’ gut, it doesn’t read minds; it uses contextual user feedback and machine learning to surface qualitative, actionable insights that help you make better product decisions.

If that sounds interesting, give Sprig a try. It’s free, it’s easy to set up, and it’s much more comfortable than hiding in the bushes 😉.

About the author

Ryan Glasgow

Product guy. Early team member at Weebly (acquired by Square) & Vurb (acquired by Snapchat); UCSD alum. I founded Sprig to help others build the best products possible.

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