“Steve Jobs Didn’t Listen to Customers” (But You Should )

It’s no secret that I believe in spending the majority of time understanding customers’ most painful problems in early stages of product development, even prior to writing a single line of code.

Often when evangelizing this approach, I encounter skeptics who say something like, “But Steve Jobs didn’t listen to customers…” And of course, if Henry Ford had listened to customers, we’d be riding race horses to work every day.

While I don’t believe brilliant product strategy is pure luck, certain aspects of success are not easily replicable — despite genius, circumstance, or opportunity. So what factors can we control?

Invalidating our own assumptions is a good start — and for that, we need customers to tell us what we’re missing, early and often. As much as we don’t want to hear how wrong we are, invalidating our own assumptions is critical to saving unneeded development and minimizing risk. This concept is probably the hardest to grasp of all of the Lean Startup “wisdoms.” As humans, we love validation.

But validation is hard. We need the help of customers to get us there. Customers should be invited to poke holes in our version of what they need. If they will help us understand how to fill the gaps, we listen. If patterns begin to appear, we understand where to shift. Our vision should be both unbreakable and pliable, but never one or the other.

On Building What Customers Say They Want

“Customers don’t know what they want” is a lie. We do know what we want as customers. We hire products that do the jobs we need done. But all of us have unsolved problems or crappy solutions in our lives. When it’s painful enough, we love to talk about it. When talking to customers, it’s important to listen closely for customer pain and consistently ask why, listening for cues and patterns that can later inform or validate your direction.

It’s important to remember that, through all of this, we don’t talk about features. We don’t consider implementation. And most of all, we never, ever just thank customers for their feedback. We’re too busy listening.

Empathy First, Strategy Next

Empathy is what customers deserve. A great product strategy is what we can give back, when we listen.

If we’re lucky, we have the chance at least once in our lifetime to deliver a product that will change customers’ lives. Without luck? Simple math tells us that an impact-driven, customer-centric approach to product strategy is, at worst, a better bet than the Powerball jackpot.