There is an often told quote attributed to Henry Ford, in product development:

“If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a better horse.”

It is usually mentioned as either an inspirational quote, or around discussions on innovation. The intent being: stick to your vision and don’t believe customers (sometimes: “you don’t need to talk to your customers”), as they will mislead you. Since customers don’t want innovations, they want iterations − or just the same product but a little better in some unquantifiable way.

Informed user experience professionals mention this quote sometimes ironically, describing poorly planned and executed market research as a basis for product development, for example:

Even I used a few times, although in a slightly different context − when describing the difference between research methods, and why we like to observe people while they are doing their tasks, rather then just listening to their feature requests on an interview.

Of course Ford never said such thing. There are plenty of articles proving this. Erik Flower’s excellent article about less horseshit published last year goes one step farther, by describing how having horses were a huge problem in urbanized areas and how Ford wasn’t even interested in horses and probably not even cars. His greatest contribution was the moving assembly line that enabled the mass production of goods − most prominently of cars.

But even is misquoted the fact remains − many product people believe that people don’t know what they need, what are their goals and what would be the best improvement to their workflow. This is a kind of paternal view that has companies as a kind of paternalistic adult over the childish customers.

First, people understand pretty well what they are doing − it’s their job after all. At least most of the time they know better what they are doing than the tech companies creating products for them. The difference is this: they know how to do their job, but they don’t know how to design and create software that helps them in their job. That’s our job − and we also don’t appreciate if the customers are trying to make us implement their preferred solution (which may be not best solution at all). The point is that their knowledge about their workflow allows them to also see what takes the most time and effort, and what improvement could bring the biggest benefit.

Second, it’s usually about asking the wrong question. It’s not that faster horses were needed, but people needed to get to other places faster, or the distances were too big. It’s very easy to ask leading questions, and change into a feature request session if the one asking the questions is not prepared to facilitate such a discussion. I see product people asking such questions, and dismissing results afterwards as users not wanting innovative products, or just plainly as irrelevant results. In fact people want better ways of doing their tasks and will use different products − if these actually solve their issues in a more efficient way.

Third, even if we realize that the need is not faster horses but something else, that in itself wouldn’t result in a better product. There are many additional whys and hows to ask, as this can uncover more detailed needs, with different groups of people having different goals. As a rule of thumb if your summary of a user session is one sentence, and you don’t find common patterns across a number of sessions, either you are targeting the wrong market − or asking the wrong questions.

Once we understand people’s goals − by asking them the right questions we can truly try to create them better products by answering needs in a better way than their current approach is.