Why Steve Jobs + Henry Ford Are Wrong

Whenever I hear someone (mistakenly) attribute Henry Ford to the quote “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses” or perpetuate Steve Job’s “Never rely on market research” ideology — it makes me sad.

Just because these quotes are famous, it doesn’t make them true.

User researchers do not ask people what they want. (We’re not Santa Claus, ha.)

Instead, we ask customers about their problems and pain points. Their motivations and goals. Their heart-felt stories about how deeply (or just plain irritating) these issues affect their lives. How they’ve attempted to solve these problems in the past.

Then we interpret. We read between the lines. We think critically. We triangulate and validate. We collaborate with designers and dreamers and innovators. We PROBLEM SOLVE.

And then we ask more questions. Which of these concepts comes closest to solving your problem? Why that one? Why not that one?

We observe. We listen.

What did we get right? What did we get wrong. We try again.

We iterate.

Customers Are Not Designers

In most cases, it’s a waste of everyone’s time to ask customers what they want. I’ve yet to meet a customer who unknowingly was UX designer or product engineer. They simply aren’t equipped to articulate exactly what organizations should build.

Of course, customers can (and do) tell us what they want. But it’s up to us to listen for what they really need.

For example:

Customers say: “My portable CD player is too big to carry. I wish it had a carabiner.”

Researchers hear: “I need an easy way to transport my music.”

Customers say: “I want a faster horse so that I can get to places quicker.”

Researchers hear: “I need a faster transportation method.”

Customers say: “I want a demo video to learn how to use this.”

Researchers hear: “The system needs to include an onboarding process.”

Customers say: “I don’t want to see the BUY button at the top of the page.”

Researchers hear: “I clearly see how to buy this product.”

In Conclusion

Customers are experts at describing their problems.

User researchers are experts at discovering the problems that need to be solved.

Insights — not data — drive action, innovation, and real understanding.

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Author: Kristine Remer

June UX is led by Kristine Remer, a CX / UX research and strategy consultant in Minneapolis. She helps companies drive significant business outcomes by finding and solving customer problems. When she's not creating customer journey maps and user personas, Kristine is either kayaking or watching her kids play soccer.