The Myth of the “Faster Horse”

The Myth of the “Faster Horse”

I’m sure you’ve heard of the allegorical story that, when asked why he built his cars the way he did, Henry Ford is alleged to say, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”  Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that supports the claim that he is to have said it — though it certainly sounds like something that Ford would say.  After all, he was the one who said that his customers could have their Model T in any color they wanted…so long as it was black.

The popularity of this quote, however, persists beyond all proof that it was never actually spoken by someone so famous.  Is it because there’s some kernel of universal truth to be found in it, or is it because it gives us license to do what we want, when we want it, and to rationalize it by saying that customers don’t know what they want?  The truth, actually, lies somewhere in between.

We all know that Steve Jobs was known to strongly believe in his own perspectives on what users and customers wanted — even being quoted as saying, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them.”  But the quote doesn’t stop there, it continues, “By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

And therein lies the truth.

It’s not about ignoring customer requests and customer input, it’s about understanding them.  It’s about identifying those latent needs that customers have that underlie their requests and their complaints, and addressing those.  And that, my friends, is what Steve Jobs was a master at — not ignoring customers, but determining what they really needed, but weren’t able to ask for.

People are always asking for their “faster horse” — because it’s something that’s easy to articulate, a problem that they run into every single day.  But rarely does a customer, client, or prospect have the insight or perspective to look beyond their actual, acute pain, and determine what the underlying cause or goal is.  For the “faster horse” request, the real problem is getting from one place to another faster, carrying more people or cargo from one place to another, or being secured from the elements more effectively when traveling.  Any one of these problems is the latent need that underlies the request for a “faster horse”.

Your job is to ask “Why?” — and to do so repeatedly.

And that, ultimately, is the responsibility of the Product Manager – to discover what the latent, unspoken needs of your market are, to dig in when discussing issues and questions with customers and stakeholders to find out what they’re not asking you for, and to elaborate on those needs in a way that makes them compelling to your stakeholders, developers, and customers.

Your job is to ask “Why?” — and to do so repeatedly.

“Why?” is the most magical question in the world — because it asks someone to dig deeper into what they’re saying, what they’re asking, or what they’re thinking, and to provide more information about the motivations and considerations that are behind their statement or question.  And it does so in a humble, non-confrontational way.  “Why do you think that’s a problem?”  “Why do you think other people don’t like this feature?”  “Why don’t you think this solution is valuable to you?”

When I’m having feature or pain point discussions with customers, I like to use what I call my Rule of Five Whys — I’m not really done with a topic until I’ve asked at least five “why” questions about what we’re discussing.  These could be intended to uncover motivations, to elicit an emotional response, or even just to elaborate on some specific fact that sounds interesting.  But unless I’ve asked “why” five times, I know that I have more to learn from my customer.

The quickest path to innovation and revolutionary products lies not in listening to what your customers are saying, but in finding out what they’re not telling you directly, and what’s motivating them underneath all of the fluff and pomp and circumstance that they direct your way.

It’s not enough to just listen to your customers, clients, and prospects.  You have to fully understand them in order to give them the things that they need, which they may or may not yet realize that they even want.

That was the magic of Steve Jobs – nobody even knew they needed 500 songs in their pocket until the iPod was unleashed on the world.  And, while you’re not likely to be the next Steve Jobs, you can keep this fact in mind the next time someone asks you for a “faster horse”.


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