Why Product teams should reconsider using that “faster horse” quote

“If I had asked them what they wanted they would have said a faster horse” — Henry Ford
“Its not the consumers job to know what they want” — Steve Jobs in response when asked “how much market research went into the ipad?”

You may have heard these quotes thrown about smugly in many a discussion about market research and product innovation. When taken out of context they imply that market research and talking to customers is a waste of time for teams developing innovative products. I’ve heard these quotes used as arguments more times than I care to remember so I wanted to learn more about their origin.

As it turns out, there is no evidence that Ford ever uttered his most famous quote. In fact it first appeared 2002. Fords initial lip from market leader is accredited, at least partially, to not innovating beyond a single low cost model T in the color black. His competitor General Motors, however, was offering customers annual model changes, choices of colors other than black, installment payment models and used car trade-ins.

So what about Steve? Jobs himself described his “real talent” to Steve Lohr of the NY Times as “seeing “vectors” of technology and culture, where they were headed and aligning to create markets”. His preternatural understanding of markets in spite of not using traditional market research has become a legendary part of the cult of Steve and the Apple brand story.

But Bud Caddell of Nobl tells an anecdotal story about Jobs sitting alone at a sushi restaurant when a young woman, sat next to him and:

“[Jobs] struck up a conversation with her — specifically, he spent an hour grilling her for feedback on the (just launched) iPhone. He was making conversation, but he was also getting user feedback and challenging his own assumptions about the device.”

Steve’s hero, Sony founder Akio Marita, was also recognized for both his astute understanding of market innovation and eschewing traditional market research.

Clay Christensen, author of the Innovator’s Dilemma, writes “it is known that [Marita] and his associates spent much of their time watching what people were trying to get done in their lives, then asking themselves whether Sony’s electronics miniaturization technology could help them do these things better, easier, and cheaper.”

Although in these “urban legends,” these innovative product leaders may have shunned more traditional channels of market research, it’s clear that Jobs and Marita have developed their intuitive sense of what customers want, partly by talking to them directly in their daily lives and continually looking for new ways to meet the needs of the market — made up of real people, with real challenges and problems that need solving.

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