There comes a point in discussions about innovation where someone trots out that Henry Ford quote: “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said, ‘a faster horse.’” It’s become a staple of the designer’s quote library, a handy defense against skeptical clients who question our iron-clad intuition. And let’s be honest, every time we say it, we feel a little better about ourselves. We’re not like those cowering luddites standing in the tracks as the innovation train rolls through.

Fast-forward a hundred years or so, and we have Steve Jobs, apparently the modern incarnation of Henry Ford’s self-assured genius. As the story goes, he ignored the customers, descending from the stormy heights of WWDC to bequeath his divinely-inscribed tablet (multi-touch, of course) to the teeming masses. Or something.

In both cases, there’s a pervasive misunderstanding about the origins of great ideas—a misunderstanding that has worsened the class warfare between the “creatives” and “everyone else”, and stood in the way of more frequent creative breakthroughs. It’s time to set the record straight.

Horses & Cars

Let’s start with Henry Ford. If he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse, because they knew they had a problem that a horse seemed to solve (transportation), and they could only think in terms of what they already knew (a horse, but faster). Did Ford really ignore his customers? Not really. He just understood their underlying need better than they did. He realized that what they really needed was not a horse per se, but convenient, affordable transportation. So he threw out the assumptions, reframed the problem at a deeper level, and found a way to bring an emerging product category to the masses.

It’s not that he didn’t pay attention to the customers, but that he paid more attention to the customers than they paid to themselves.

While we’re at it, there’s no reason why a car has to be the ultimate answer to personal transportation now, any more than a horse was the ultimate answer then. And one day, a future innovator will ask the important question: what’s the underlying need for transportation in today’s society? And why should it be a car?

Apple & Magic

What about Steve Jobs? I think he was a genius in a sense, or at least a rare businessman who got a few important things right and had the guts to build everything around them. But I think the image of Jobs as genius (or evil genius, if you prefer) misses the point.

Apple Creative Services director Tim Brennan once used this graphic to explain Apple’s creative process:
C’mon, man. Really.
That’s not helping anything. Selling the idea that Apple’s products are just “magic” might be good marketing, but it’s mostly nonsense.

Take the iPad, for example. The iPad wasn’t “magic” so much as it was the logical (and inspired) outcome of human-centered computer interface design. Computers, as we have come to know them, have too many steps in between what you want to do and actually doing it: desire → mouse movement → on-screen button → button click → result. Most of those steps are workarounds to deal with the limitations of technology. But few people stop and think about that interaction carefully enough to realize it’s built on assumptions that aren’t timeless. The iPad just took advantage of emerging technology to remove those in-between steps, and package it in an intuitive, affordable package. We never needed a mouse, except as a crutch. Tap what you want. That’s it. Of course it’s the future. And someday, someone will challenge the notion of needing a tablet at all, dig beneath another layer of human needs, and invent a new product category.

I think people actually did want a new tablet product category (like the iPad), but they didn’t know it yet, because they didn’t understand their unfulfilled, underlying needs that made their previous way of using a computer incomplete. Apple tapped into that unarticulated desire, unified the hardware, software, and developer community, and the market confirmed it. Innovation is much more than the idea—you still need everything that goes into turning that idea into a viable technology and business. But it’s the insights into deeper human needs that set the stage for the breakthrough.

Jobs once said, “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.” Perhaps a less catchy, but more precise, way of putting it: don’t always take a customer’s request at face value; work hard to thoroughly understand their experiences and values that led them to conclude their request is the solution. It’s often their way of expressing a need that we haven’t yet understood well enough. Usually, customer requests are the clue, not the answer.

As Sohrab Vossoughi points out, there’s a reason Apple “doesn’t listen to their customers”; they are the customers. They already understood the experience from the inside, and made something they knew they would love.

The Real Question

The decisions of great designers are certainly based on intuition,but they’re not magic, or even purely subjective. Design choices can be traced back to observable human needs, and explained.

So should we listen to what customers want, or not? Should we trust that “the customer is always right” and do what they say? Dismiss them? Or compromise, and try to make everyone (no one) happy? Wrong question. A better one is: what do they really need, and how might this be a clue?

Neither Ford nor Jobs ignored their customers. They just understood their underlying needs better than the customers did.

Whether they can articulate it or not, what customers really want is the answer to their underlying problems, and it’s the designer’s job to uncover those problems with empathy, careful observation, and patient listening. We have to look past the horse and challenge the assumptions until we find the underlying needs—and design for those.