Ask Users about Experiences not Needs

There's a quote from Henry Ford that I really don't like: "If I asked customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." And I don't like it for three reasons. First, he didn't say it, it's an apocryphal quote. Second, it indicates a bad understanding of history as Ford was far from the first auto manufacturer, and people knew about horseless carriages. Third, it implies that you shouldn't talk to customers. I've listened to numerous founders spout this quote in response to questions about what they know about their customer base, or as an explanation for why they're in "stealth mode."

Nevertheless, this bad quote persists year after year, so there's probably a reason why.

I believe that the reason it survives is that it does convey an intuitive idea that founders, creators, and product managers are partial to, that customers can't ask for something they've never seen, especially whatever amazing and fantastic thing that's in development.

The reality is that understanding your customer or user is critical to the success of a product as it's almost impossible that a collection of guesses made by the creators about their customers will all be correct.

After deciding to talk to your customers about your new initiatives, the next challenge is deciding how to talk to them.

Many interactions can undermine getting reliable information from a customer. The most common problem is asking leading questions. Asking a series of leading questions will only serve to confirm what ever beliefs the creator already has, and is little better than not talking to a customer at all. If you ask someone if they want something that will make their lives much better, they will say yes before they even know what that something is.

The second problem is asking questions in a format that puts the customer in a helping role. People are socially tuned to try to be helpful, or at least to appear helpful. If you ask them a question to help you figure something out, they will provide suggestions at random if necessary to help. Treating these suggestions as valid customer wants will be a mistake.

The final problem is asking customers what they need. This problem is often exacerbated by structuring the question in a leading or helpful fashion, which incorporates the first two problems. But even if you ask a need question without a leading or helpful format, the fundamental problem is that a customer has not spent time exploring potential solutions, which is the nugget of truth that keeps the Ford quote going. During a customer survey session, a customer will only provide the most superficial solutions.

So, what's the solution? Customers are experts in their own experience. When you ask customers about their own experiences you can focus on what they're saying instead of what you want to hear. You can create trust in your desire to listen, which will often generate authentic insights into your customer's perspective. This process of discovery can then be joined with a jobs-to-be-done analysis to create solutions to provide customers with what they really need without ever asking them.