Beating Henry Ford’s Faster Horse

Or, “Steve Jobs didn’t do customer research!”

Designers and entrepreneurs who advocate customer research are used to resistance from skeptics. Steve Jobs didn’t believe in customer research the skeptics say. And though he was enigmatic on the subject, Jobs did famously tell Business Week, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Even more pervasive is the line erroneously attributed to Henry Ford: If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. (Nevermind Patrick Vlaskovits’s excellent debunking.)

The reason these arguments are so persistent is that there is a kernel of truth in them. People are bad at expressing their needs. But that’s not the whole story–and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to you customers. Instead, you can think about customer needs using this framework:

Customer have three categories of needs:

  • expressed needs (“faster horses!”)
  • implied needs (Model T’s)
  • latent needs (to travel longer distances with greater speed.)

Your job as a product designer or entrepreneur is to uncover (and then serve) the deeper needs in the stack.

There’s no one true method to do that. Intuition works for some. But more commonly, folks use more structured methods to get beyond expressed needs. The classic methods typically involve interviews, observations and interpretation. (Sometimes, observation and interpretation are mistaken for intuition.) This is why designers and researchers talk about ethnography.

As I said, intuition works for some. But the next time a customer asks you for a faster horse, will your intuition recognize the request for what it is? And will you know what to do to get down the stack? You can use the famous 5 Whys method. Or use my friend Lane Halley’s magic question, “If you had that [faster horse], what would it let you do?” You’ll be on the path to the deeper understanding you seek. And perhaps, if you’re very clever, on the way to a breakthrough worthy of Jobs or Ford.

Originally published at on September 30, 2012.