What to do if a user talks about faster horses

Duncan Stephen

According to Adrian Howard, it turns out Henry Ford never said that quote about faster horses.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

– Henry Ford did not say this

That’s not to say we shouldn’t pay attention to the sentiment of the quote, however. Even if Henry Ford didn’t say it, it somehow resonates. Something about it is true.

But far from being an argument against conducting user research, it’s a signal that you need to be careful how you conduct user research.

Too many people assume that being user-centred is as simple as asking people what they want. In fact, this is one of the worst things you can do. All you get back is a list of feature requests. That’s because this is what they think you expect, and they want to be helpful.

And let’s be honest, if you asked this question, a list of features probably is what you expected. After all, it’s easier to implement a bunch of features like a sheep, rather than think deeply about the problem.

Apparently Henry Ford did say this:

If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.

Note that he still isn’t simply asking people what they want. It’s all about truly understanding other people.

So don’t just ask people what they want. Instead, speak to people about their context and what they’re doing now. Find out what frustrates them. Discover what needs to improve.

You might discover that people’s horses are too slow. What you do to fix that is up to you.

Header photo by Richard from USA [CC BY 2.0]

Duncan Stephen

Written by

User experience and digital consultant — https://duncanstephen.net/

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