Was Apple Founder Steve Jobs Right about Market Research?
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Great — is this just another article about Steve Jobs’ opinion on business? It’s been done before, too many times. Even after death, the legacy of the famous Apple founder lives on. A new article examining his opinions on Apple, business, marketing or life is published nearly every day. And publishers take great joy in explaining why (in their opinion) Steve Jobs was right or wrong. His opinions and beliefs have almost become a crude business litmus test.
But yes, to answer your question, this is an article about the late Apple founder’s opinion on (in this case) market research. But it is an important topic — led mainly by the fact that his opinion (or public opinion at the very least) is still shared by many in business. And it is a view that, for many organisations, can be damaging.
What Did Steve Jobs Think About Market Research?
The best place to start when answering this question is with quotes from the man himself. Often an outspoken critic of traditional research, Jobs has been quoted in an interview with Fortune saying:
“We do no market research. We don’t hire consultants. The only consultants I’ve ever hired in my 10 years is one firm to analyze Gateway’s retail strategy so I would not make some of the same mistakes they made [when launching Apple’s retail stores]. But we never hire consultants, per se. We just want to make great products.”
However, even earlier than this Jobs had been critical of market research. In a separate 1998 interview with Businessweek, he famously stated:
“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Echoing sentiments from Henry Ford, it is easy to assume from these statements that the Apple founder railed against the widely held belief that market research is not necessary. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Apple’s success, on the surface, appears to be due to their approach to design — unhinged from the rigid constraints of consumer input. Many believe this lack of research has given engineers the sandbox ecosystem required to deliver innovations and products Apple is famous for.
The Impact on Silicon Valley
It’s clear, from the state of Silicon Valley today, that this approach has left a lasting impact. The blue-chip, venture based start-up wonderland still sees little market research to this day. The luminaries that shape Silicon Valley culture by bankrolling and developing start-ups are regularly accused of perpetuating this culture. Many start-up founders believe that to conduct market research is to admit failure, to recognise that they do not know their potential customers and (worse) that their product is not good enough. After all, that is not the sign of a visionary leader.
So what has taken the place of traditional wisdom in Silicon Valley? A dangerous and troubling mind-set, commonly known as failing fast. What started as an innocuous idea to help investors see quicker returns has snowballed into an expensive form of market research. So what exactly is failing fast? The premise is simple: invest early in a new product, push it out to market and decide (almost instantly) whether the ROI is high enough to continue. If it isn’t, then the product (and often company) is killed. All in search of the next billion dollar unicorn.
While failing fast is a concept I can stand behind — cutting your losses does seem reasonable when faced with a product that may not ever become profitable. However, after the 100th failure, investors and founders alike should re-evaluate their position on market research. After all, it would certainly be a more cost effective way of developing a profitable business when compared to a wasteland of failed ventures. Newer agile approaches can even support the fast-paced nature of the Silicon Valley work ethic. And, perhaps most importantly, start-ups don’t need to invest great amounts of capital or time into the process — if they conduct research as Apple did.
How Do Apple Conduct Research?
Part of the confusion surrounding Apple’s approach to market research is the over-simplification of what activities can be considered research. Focus groups & interviews are one of the most recognisable, universally accepted forms of research. These are the activities that Apple did not engage in.
However, what made Apple successful at research was understanding the needs of their consumers. How did they know what their consumers’ needs were? There are two main ways: understanding needs & jobs to be done through self-ethnography and surveys. Yes, that’s right — Apple surveys its customers to supplement their own internal data and thinking. This came to light in 2012 when, during a legal scuffle with Samsung, the company’s VP of Product Marketing submitted a document to the court explaining why documents relating to Apple’s market research (specifically iPhone surveys) should be kept secret.
So, what does this mean? Despite the pomp and circumstance, and despite Steve Job’s characteristically dramatic flair — Apple needs market research. It needs to understand what is driving sales of its products and competitor products. It doesn’t need to create grand, elaborate strategies to do so. If anything, Apple’s approach to research is one of the most humble out there. Understand the consumer through a combination of qualitative & quantitative feedback without disrupting the product experience.
Despite the dramatics & criticism. Apple still need research to understand their customers just as much as their competitors.
It’s simple, effective, affordable — and it works. But by hiding it behind the façade of a zero research approach, Apple has fanned the flames of a dangerous view of market research in the Silicon Valley microcosm. It’s time to break that misconception. Yes, easy access to investors and capital will keep the start-up economy alive. But acceptance of market research into the community can provide the competitive intelligence that gives new ventures a better chance of success and spots early warning signs before they become problematic.
Market research, in its many forms, is a vital aspect of developing a business. The scale and breadth of tools that it covers makes it accessible to businesses of all sizes, from the juggernaut of Apple to a zero budget start-up. All you need to start taking advantage of it is the willingness to learn and a desire to create the best product you can. Who wouldn’t want that?