“If I’d asked people what they wanted they’d have said faster horses” declared father of the motor car Henry Ford.  Fast forward a century to another great innovator, co-founder of Apple 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”.  If we take these comments at face value they suggest that customer opinion can’t be the source of paradigm shifting NPD.

But I think Ford and Jobs have been misconstrued; their comments have been taken too superficially.

What they’re really saying is not “customers can’t guide product innovation” but “customers can guide innovation but only if you ask them the right questions”.  Ask them how they would improve the horse and cart and of course they would place boundaries around their thoughts; the question is framed in this way.  The trick is to ask customers not how they would change an existing product but to explore the underlying fundamentals that the product addresses.  To explore problems as a way to generate innovative solutions:

  • What goals – both practical and emotional – is the product meeting?
  • What frustrations are experienced with existing solutions?
  • What outcome, assuming absolutely no limitations, would the ideal solution deliver?

Ford and Jobs make another valid point when they say that customers can’t always articulate their thoughts.  So as well as asking, good product development research also sees.  It observes customers in their workplace to see the challenges they face firsthand.

So perhaps if Henry Ford posed his question differently the answer may have been more insightful.  He could have asked the tradesman “what do you use a horse and cart for?”.  “To move my heavy goods” answers the tradesman.  “What’s the downside of a cart?” continues Ford.  “It can be uncomfortable, requires me to make two journeys to move all my goods and the horses need to rest frequently” responds the tradesman.  Finally Ford asks the critical question, “forget about the horse and cart, what would the ideal outcome be?”.  “Arrive quickly, refreshed, with all my goods and without the need to care for tired horses” dreams the tradesman “but no horse could do that”.  No horse could.  But with insights into the fundamental purpose (and limitations) of the horse, a dose of technological innovation and a leap of imagination the motor car is a small step away.

Read more about our approach to business-to-business (B2B) product development research.

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Andrew has specialised in B2B research for over a decade and co-founded Circle Research in 2006. He is a columnist for B2B Marketing Magazine, a regular contributor to Research Live and frequent speaker at leading events such as the B2B Leaders Forum, Customer Experience Live and the Social Media World Forum. Andrew is a Chartered Member of the MRS, teaches the MRS B2B research course and holds an MA in Psychology from Aberdeen University alongside an MSc in Marketing from Strathclyde University.

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