That Steve Jobs Research Quote Should RIP

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A little over four years since the passing of Steve Jobs, we continue to follow the ups & downs of Apple and channel the words that this amazing entrepreneur left behind. One of the most frequent Jobs lessons I hear in both startup spaces and corporate halls is: “Jobs didn’t believe in market research.” This broad claim distorts the reality of Apple’s success and weakens innovators’ chances. The purpose of this post is to bring some clarity to Jobs’ words and show how market research should and shouldn’t be used.

I was first compelled to write this post after seeing a stream of comments erupt at a LinkedIn group on New Product Development. A post titled “Three Reasons Why Steve Jobs Didn’t Need Market Research” solicited passionate responses from this group of innovators who come from both the startup and corporate worlds. Clearly those of us who work to launch new products and assist others in the process are struggling with “that Steve Jobs market research quote.”

Every few weeks I come across an objection to market research when I speak with fellow startup founders. Some first-time founders feel that research flies in the face of what they hear from startup luminaries. Market research is sometimes derided in Silicon Valley circles as a sign of weakness. Founders are encouraged to be determined, passionate go-getters who “keep shipping code.” They feel pressure to be constant cheerleaders with investors, partners, friends and family. All news most be good news and momentum may never ebb. Market research can feel like a brake on progress, and, deeper-down, some founders fear that “bad results” from testing with customers will threaten their progress and promises.

Even Big Company marketers are abandoning research. As they feel more pressure to move quickly, and have fewer “non-working” budget dollars to spend, market research is becoming an easier step to skip — a known cost with an unknown impact.

I fear that the rising generation of innovators is missing out on one of the critical steps to success. As someone who has used market research to build successful business at both big companies and startups, I’d like to offer a nuanced guide…

Before moving on, we should analyze Jobs’ actual words about market research. Here are the three relevant quotes that I found in Walter Issacson’s biography:

  • At a 1982 planning retreat, someone on the Mac team, “thought they should do some market research to see what customers wanted. ‘No,’ [Jobs] replied, ‘because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.’”
  • “On the day he unveiled the Macintosh, a reporter from Popular Science asked Jobs what type of market research he had done. Jobs responded by scoffing, ‘Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the phone?’”
  • Jobs: “Some people say, ‘Give customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, “A faster horse!”‘ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

I wholeheartedly agree with these quotes. One should never conduct a research study that asks people what they want–yet it is a mistake that big and small companies make every day. I learned about the right way to research within the first few months of my time working in the new products team at Procter & Gamble, a company legendary for creating billion-dollar categories ranging from disposable diapers to Swiffer and Febreze. Broadly speaking, there are two types of research that work–and they are completely consistent with Jobs’ words and success.

First, you must spend time understanding and gaining insights into customers’ existing habits, beliefs, routines and unmet needs. We would never ask people, “What should we develop to make your life easier?” Instead, we spent time with people in their homes and watched them at the store, then we dug through data about what they are buying and using. Your role at the early stage of innovation is to get into the shoes of your customer, understand her life, and look for insights that give you ideas on products that you could create that would surprise and delight her.

And this is exactly what Jobs was so good at. He saw early on that people were interested in using computers, but were frustrated at their complexity. He saw that people loved music, but couldn’t stand loading a few dozen songs at a time onto the early MP3 players. Jobs deeply understood how people engaged with technology. And while he often used himself as the “focus group of one,” he kept the desires of billions of people in mind, rather than just following the whims of a single billionaire. Compare that to Bill Gates, who infamously pushed forward an Internet-enabled watch because he wanted one and thought everyone else would, too.

Going back to the Henry Ford quote, I found this interesting passage in the book Startup CEO.:

Ford’s customers didn’t say that they wanted a “safer” horse or a “more comfortable” horse. They said that they wanted a faster horse. They were perfectly clear about what they wanted: speed

The second role of market research comes in evaluating the ideas that come out of customer understanding and insights. At Procter & Gamble, we wrote up descriptions of our ideas and shared them with people in one-one-one conversations and in national quantitative surveys in order to gauge their interest and willingness to buy. In big and small companies alike, it is invaluable to get direct customer feedback. While it’s tough to get customers to tell you what they want, they do a great job of reacting to ideas that you share with them. After all, reacting to new ideas is something they do every day when they turn on the TV, chat with friends or browse a store aisle. Customer feedback on ideas helps you refine your product, model the business potential, and sometimes prevent you from a costly failure.

Again, this is exactly what Steve Jobs agreed with, and this is what the Apple team does every day. As stated in the Jobs quotes above, you’ve got to “show them” what you have come up with and use their reactions to guide you. Apple has a massive team of user experience people who use customer input and testing to improve their products.

When Jobs pointedly rejected “market research” I believe he was really making a point that the way most big consumer electronics companies used research was dead wrong. And I fully agree that most of the dozens of Fortune 100 companies I have worked with are more likely to miss-use the research that they conduct. Based on my experience, here are three lessons in the right way to conduct market research:

Nearly every kind of consumer research generates numbers–things like the percentage of likes/dislikes, or how many people say they would download an app or buy a product. The companies we work with are often staffed by numbers-oriented people. Sometimes they look solely at the number output and yearn for a score that predicts their odds of success. This is tempting but it is the wrong way to think.

Instead, research number results should help uncover insights and suggest ways of improving an idea. I actually first look at customers’ written comments before analyzing the quantitative responses in research. I find that the words people use when we ask questions such as “What do you like or dislike?” are infinitely more valuable than number scores and graphs. In these words we can get a true sense for what they think and feel–and remember, getting inside customers’ hearts and minds is what really led to Jobs’ success. If anything, the numbers should show you where you need to spend more time understanding customers and adjusting your product to fit them.

I cannot help but visibly cringe whenever I hear someone say they want to conduct market research to “validate our idea.” What people usually mean when they use the “v-word” is: “We know we have a winner, but someone (investor, boss, client, partner) wants to see some third-party proof.” I’ve even seen people try to purposely engineer research so that the test results come back positive. Believe me, you can always set up research to tell a story that you want told — just ask any political campaign operative.

Research should only be done to test your hypotheses and improve your product or service. Otherwise you are setting yourself up for disappointment and failure. Winning innovators are confident in their ideas and abilities, yet are open to new data and eager for the voice of the customer to help guide their development. One definition of wisdom — and a key to success — is: “Strong opinions, weakly held.”

Anyone who works in innovation at a big company has come to dread the phrase, “Let’s get some more research…” It has become the classic tactic to delay progress and postpone hard decisions until a later date. Instead, research should be a driver of decisions and progress. If an investor or superior ever forces you to conduct research before moving forward, you should get sign-off on what steps will come out of the research. In other words: “If the research shows that X hypothesis is correct, you (manager/investor) agree to move forward with (launch/investment).” This forces the big decisions you need and prevents research from being the scapegoat.

Startups often suffer from a different type of delay; they tend to believe that the only useful way to learn is to “just launch it.” But too many startups buy into a warped interpretation of The Lean Startup Method and don’t get real customer feedback until they launch and look for comments in TechCrunch coverage. Unfortunately, by waiting for launch they delay learning, and often they find it harder to shift course. Earlier customer feedback, say through deep one-on-one conversations or a well-designed online concept test, can significantly improve the product before it hits the market.

A few years ago, Wired magazine took a second look at the legacy vs. reality of Steve Jobs. The article ends with a compelling summary by Robert Sutton, a professor of management and engineering at Stanford who wrote the 2007 best-seller The No Asshole Rule. According to Sutton:

Jobs has become a Rorschach test, a screen onto which entrepreneurs and executives can project a justification of their own lives: choices they would have made anyway, difficult traits they already possess. Everyone has their own private Steve Jobs. It usually tells you a lot about them–and a little about Jobs.”

In other words, if you don’t believe in market research it’s probably an internalized bias and you are just using Steve Jobs success to justify this belief. I run across a fair number of people who similarly feel that customer input and understanding is a waste of time, and prefer to move forward with determination that hard work and “just shipping” will pay off. I choose to keep investing in and working with leaders who are confident, yet eager to learn and improve. This is a personal bias that has helped me and others succeed in innovation in the past.

P.S.: I recently received the following email from “Apple Market Research”. It’s proof that market research exists at Apple!

Bob Gilbreath is co-founder and CEO of Hearty, a Recommendation Network where great people help each other find opportunities, and author of The Next Evolution of Marketing: Connect with your Customers by Marketing with Meaning. Follow him on Twitter.

I build high performing organizations where people love to create amazing products together. Founder with 2x strategic exits, working the big one

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