Are you asking your customers the right questions?

We all know the Henry Ford quote that goes like this:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

(It’s fair to note that some don’t believe he actually said this, but let’s go with it.) It’s cited often when naysayers try to tell us that customers don’t know what they want, i.e., customers can’t help us innovate because they just want “faster horses.” Instead, they feel that some visionary can create a better product; the problem is, these visionaries don’t come along every day.

So back to the faster horses problem. To that I say, “That’s what happens when you ask the wrong question!” This is an issue that I’ve been calling the “Henry Ford Principle” in recent conversations.

In truth, most customers don’t know what they want. And that’s OK. They don’t know what they want because they’re focused on what they are trying to do, not on designing products – that’s your job; if you can solve that problem for them – design a product to help them do what they’re trying to do – then you’ll sell some products and have some very happy customers.

Steve Jobs said: You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.

This is true. So, don’t ask them what they want. Ask them what they’re trying to do, what they’re trying to achieve. Ask them about their pain points, their needs, their desired outcomes in what they’re doing.

If you ask them what they want, they’ll kill you with features and enhancements that will have that faster horse looking like an alien with three eyes, four ears, five legs and seven tails that trots sideways. None of the enhancement requests will be cohesive or make sense to the big picture. You’ll just keep adding on more features and functionality, until, in the end, you have a product that’s far too complex to use and doesn’t suit anyone’s needs. (I’ve seen this happen! It’s not pretty.)

Instead, step back and ask customers about their pain points with the current product, what it’s not doing for them, what they’re trying to achieve that they can’t. Or bypass thinking about the current product; focus on a situation for which you’ll develop a new or better solution. Focus on what customers are trying to do and uncover unmet needs to aid in your new product design efforts.

I think a good approach is this:

  • Identify the need and level set: ask about the pain points, needs, outcomes; identify the problem to solve; get at the root cause for a truly successful product
  • Develop some success metrics: how will you know that you’ve met your customers’ needs? solved their problems?
  • Ideate: brainstorm and develop a couple of solid ideas based on what you heard (here’s where the visionary in you and your team might come out!)
  • Co-create: take some ideas, develop, and iterate – with customers
  • Develop: based on co-creation and iteration, select the final product design and build it
  • Test your product: this will be a larger test than to those who helped co-create
  • Measure performance/success: how well does this product help customers achieve their desired outcomes? what’s the experience?
  • Continuous listening: over time, the needs and outcomes evolve and so should the product

Does that sound too complex? It shouldn’t. The customer needs to be at the center of your product design process. If not, and your competitors include them, who do you think will have the advantage?

This doesn’t mean every product is going to be designed in this manner. Sometimes, products just happen because someone is truly a visionary and has an amazing idea. And there’s a willing and ready audience for it. But keep this in mind: If you don’t have a customer for your product, then you don’t have a product; you just have an idea.

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask; for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes. -Albert Einstein