On Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, and Fast Horses

A solid consensus seems to exist that customer feedback, gathered through market research, is a key to successful innovation. And yet, I’m surprised how often one can hear dissenting voices. Some folks, especially not engaged in day-to-day innovation activities, claim that paying too much attention to customers can stifle innovation, degrade it to a mere incremental improvement of existing products (which these folks consider as anathema to the “true” innovation).

In support of their position, they routinely quote Steve Jobs: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” A plausible interpretation of this quote would seem to be that had Jobs listened to his customers, Apple would still have been making incremental improvements to Apple-1.

Another supportive line to the same argument is attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.”

Recently, I came across a brilliant piece by Tristan Kromer, who provided an interesting twist to Ford’s line:

“If the customer asks for a faster horse, do not build a faster horse. Ask, “Why do you want a faster horse? What would you use it for?” If the customer wants a faster horse to move cargo across town, a car might be a great invention. When the customer wants a faster horse to win a horse race, a car is a terrible invention.”

And then it struck me. I reread Ford’s quote. Read it again, too: “If I had asked…they would have said.”

Ford didn’t ask his customers! He simply assumed that all they wanted was a faster horse. But he invented the car instead – and good for him!

It’s still unfortunate that Ford didn’t develop a habit of asking his customers what they wanted. I doubt that many of them would have said they wanted a faster horse. Most of them would have replied, as Tristan Kromer suggested, that they needed to move cargo across town. And if Ford kept asking follow-up questions – which cargo quantities, for which distances, at which speed – useful feedback would have inevitably emerged. Who knows, had Ford had a habit of talking to his customers, the first Ford truck – arguably the best Ford Motor Company’s invention ever – would have been invented earlier than 20 years after the first Ford car.

Curiously, in the 1930s, the Toyota Motor Corporation invented 5Y (the 5 Whys technique), a simple but powerful approach to get employee and customer feedback. I don’t want to sound preposterous but had Ford, not Toyota, invented 5Y, it could have been Ford, not Toyota, occupying today the top spot on the list of the biggest car manufacturers in the world.

Of course, one should understand the difference between two related, overlapping, yet distinct forms of customer feedback: customer wants and customer needs. What focus groups produce is the customer wants: a demand for a faster horse or a faster computer. It takes more time and effort – and much more sophisticated market research tools – to identify customer needs behind customer wants. True, people often don’t know that they want a product until you show it to them. But it is only after they realized that they needed this product – and wanted it too! -that they would be ready to pay for it. There is no innovation without customer feedback – either in the form of wants or needs.

And what about Steve Jobs? Read his quote again, too. Jobs obviously didn’t like focus groups, arguably a very messy tool of collecting consumer feedback. His quote says nothing about other forms of market research. Did he detest them all? I don’t know.

Regardless, a genius like Steve Jobs can afford to eschew proper market research and trust his guts. Feel yourself on par with Jobs? Go ahead and try! Just don’t be surprised if your innovation journey won’t be as successful as Apple’s.

Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.

Image credit: Photo by Gene Devine on Unsplash

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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