Ford Model T

That “Henry Ford” Quote…

If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, ‘A faster horse.’” — Henry Ford?

While there’s doubt that Ford ever said this, it’s something he might have said. Designers tend to hear this when we suggest doing User Research to determine needs and pain points. “If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse is what Henry Ford said and he was extremely successful so it’s a waste of time” Please read this article from HBR about why his initial success was predicated on price reduction and the implementation (smartly) of the assembly line (something he didn’t invent) because it discusses his initial success with the first mass produced car, but also points out that General Motors ate his lunch in the 20’s.

So here is what you say as a rebuttal to the “quote” if it comes up during a development conversation where you’re trying to get some User Research done.

So imagine you’re sitting in a conference room and you suggest that doing User Research will help advance the product and someone says: “If I’d have asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”…

You: Stop. I’ve heard that before. Ford was a smart person right?

Them: Right and he knew that asking customers how to innovate was a bad idea because…

You: So Ford would only have asked one question?

Them: Yes because…

You: How about:

  1. If you’d had that faster horse, how fast would you have wanted it to go?
  2. Where would you go if you could go someplace fast?
  3. Who would you like to be able to take with you?
  4. Would the horse eat more oats if it was that fast?
  5. What would you want to take with you on a faster horse trip?
  6. If the horse got a broken leg, what if you knew how to heal it?
  7. What if you could leave the faster horse in the barn and not have to worry about feeding it when you weren’t riding it?
  8. What if the road you took with the faster horse was smooth?
  9. What is your favorite color horse?
  10. What if your horse could protect you from the rain?

User Research is a tool to dig into the heart of a problem and solve it through inquiry. The questions above are the kinds of follow up questions to to a customer saying “a faster horse” because they get at needs and pain points. By answering the above questions, Ford may have been able to innovate past his initial success instead of playing catch up later when GM came along.

Try it and let me know what response you get.

Good luck and keep fighting the good fight.

(Special thanks to Dave Snowball. Our conversation sparked this article.)