Henry Ford is famously supposed to have said: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said ‘a faster horse'”. (It’s doubtful that he did say this by the way, but in these days of fake news many would regard it as ‘a story that’s too good to check’.)
Even if it’s apocryphal, the ‘faster horse’ quote offers a couple of instructive lessons.
Most often, it is taken as evidence that customers struggle to articulate what they want, so it’s no good asking them. You’ll just get incremental ideas that make little difference: a faster horse, a thinner smartphone, that sort of thing. This observation has some truth to it, and if it encourages people to prototype ideas and observe people’s behaviour in real world settings, then that’s a good thing.
However, there’s a second, equally important lesson: Even if customers can’t give you radical new ideas, they can provide something very valuable if you know what you’re listening for: insights.
A faster horse isn’t much of an idea if the alternative is a car. But forget about the word ‘horse’. The word to pay attention to is ‘faster’. Here is where the potential insight is.
To turn that potential insight into a real one, just ask every three-year-old’s favourite question:
(Why faster? Why thinner? etc).
The answer will depend on the respondent:
“Well (assuming 1908 work practice and technology) I want it to be faster because then I can get to town for my groceries and be back to work on the farm more quickly.”
Or they might say:
“Well, I run a messenger service and people want replies to their letters more quickly. If I could increase the speed of my service, I’d get a great advantage over my competitors.”
Now we have not just a low-grade idea but some potentially golden insights! In both cases, armed with the insight we can come up with a bunch of genuinely good ideas (cars, telephones, grocery deliver services) to better meet the customer’s needs.
Breakthroughs come when you get insights.
How do you go about systematically finding such insights? There are many ways, but a good way to start is to create entirely novel conversations between people who don’t usually talk (e.g. between infrequent customers and employees who don’t get out much).
You also have to make sure that you can really listen and hear things that challenge ‘what everybody knows’ about how your industry works.
If you want to hear more about how to do that, drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.