Faster horses: Everyone’s favorite excuse to skip user research

There is a story, or parable, that regularly pops up in the startup and tech communities. It goes something like this:

“User don’t know what they want. If Henry Ford asked users what they wanted, they would have just said ‘faster horses.’ They never would have arrived at the car.”

This story drives me nuts. It is also so prolific that people have stopped even bothering to tell the whole story.

I regularly work out of a co-working office, and the other day I overheard two young entrepreneurs discussing some user-survey results. At one point one turned to the other and said, “you know what they say, ‘faster horses’ and all that.” His co-founder nodded his head. I cringed and bit my tongue.

First, a little bit of research reveals that this story is in part a myth. Henry Ford never actually said the infamous quote, “If I’d asked people what they want they would have said faster horses.”

Second, the “moral” of the story presents a misguided classification of what user feedback is good for, and it’s usually only brought up when someone is trying to justifying their decision to forgo user research.

To be clear, users will not tell you exactly how to design and build your product. But users will tell you….

  • what problems they have,
  • how they feel about those problems,
  • and what the value of a solution would mean to them.

You just have to ask them the right questions.

So if you walk up to your target customers and ask, “So, uh, what do you want?” Then yes, you aren’t going to get any value out of talking to users. But if you are actually interested in talking to users, learning about how they solve problems currently, and learning what sucks and could be improved, then you should talk to users at every possible opportunity.

In the fictional Henry Ford parable above, a wise Mr. Ford would have focussed on the request for “faster” and followed up with more questions, such as “How much faster?” “How fast would be too fast?” “How much would you be willing to pay for going twice as fast?” and so on.

In summary, users won’t tell you how to design or build a product. That is distinctly your job. But users can tell you about virtually every requirement the solution should have, which is the next best thing.

(Originally published on the User-Centered Startup blog)