“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” - Henry FordHenry Ford has so many memorable quotes but this one is definitely my favorite. I was reminded of it earlier today by Eric Dodds posing an oft-wondered question - “is the customer always right?”
It’s an important thing to consider for any company, as the answer to this question will greatly influence how products, ideas, marketing strategies, etc, are imagined and developed. How much stock should you put into input from your user base? How much should you trust your own instincts and experience in your respective field? What happens when these two approaches conflict?
To many people, the answer would seem obvious and likely something along the lines of:
Of course the customer is always right! If the customer isn’t happy, then you don’t have a business!While I would completely agree with the obviousness of needing customers to support a business, I don’t believe that a users happiness is dependent on giving them exactly what they ask for. Rather, a customers happiness is dependent on meeting whatever need it is they’re seeking fulfillment for, as best as you can — exceeding their expectations, when possible.
I often find myself depending on Henry Ford’s wisdom when making design and development decisions. Perhaps it seems prideful of me but I tend to rely heavily on my own instincts when creating something. However, this certainly doesn’t mean that I ignore user input. On the contrary, I listen very carefully to users. But here’s where the Henry Ford approach comes into play — instead of asking a user how they would like for me to solve their problem, I listen more for the central “story” of what their problem is.
In light of this thought process, it’s important to understand two things that Henry Ford was not saying:
- Users are stupid
- Users don’t know what they need
On the contrary, users know exactly what they need. The challenge in meeting their needs is that users are often ignorant — the word “ignorant” being used in the purist possible way (i.e. not indicating stupidity). Using a simple tautology, you don’t know what you don’t know — and nobody can be faulted for that.
This is what Henry Ford did so well. He listened for the central story. Since automobiles hadn’t been mass-produced or perfected yet in the early 20th century when Ford began working on the Model T, the general population wouldn’t have known to ask for a car. However, what they did know is that they wanted to get between point A and point B at a faster pace.
Fortunately for us, Henry Ford was not content to simply seek out faster horses. And we shouldn’t be either.