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Henry Ford and the Faster Horse

Guest post by Jeni Sall, CEO of Genesis Research Associates

You’ve probably heard it a hundred times, even though there’s no evidence that Henry Ford ever said it: “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would’ve said ‘a faster horse.’”

Regardless of whether he said it or not, though, the statement does capture a widespread belief: “I know better. I’m the expert.

Why should I take the time or spend the money to ask those [ignorant] consumers about an area they know nothing about?!”

Let’s pretend that Henry Ford did say that consumers would ask for a “faster horse”. The comment clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of the primary objective of product innovation research.

It implies that when we ask questions of prospective customers, we are hoping for them to tell us the solution to their problems. Indeed, if we ask them for that, we are very likely to get a simplistic response, like “faster horse”.

However, that is not at all what we should be asking. Customers are not expert problem solvers. Coming up with a solution is your job.

The topic about which your prospective customers have ultimate expertise is the nature of the problem to be solved. This is the area that you will want to explore in depth with prospective users of your new product.

Marketing research can be extremely valuable, if it is conducted with insight and if the feedback is integrated into product planning. The early experiences of two successful CEOs with quite different attitudes about pre-launch customer feedback, Steve Jobs and Scott Cook, illustrate this point.

Despite his brilliance, Steve Jobs’ unwillingness to listen to customers cost Apple dearly in its early days.  Apple did conduct research, but management paid little heed to findings that contradicted their beliefs.

Apple spent 4 years and $50 million developing the Lisa computer. Prior to its launch in 1983, marketing research predicted disaster, but the company dismissed the forecast and made no course-corrections. Ultimately, Apple sold relatively few Lisa computers and the product was pulled in 1986. If the firm had not had deep pockets, Lisa would have brought it down.

Scott Cook, CEO of Intuit, had an entirely different approach. His Quicken software was quite successful, and he was looking for ways to extend his product line. His next idea was to develop a small-business version of Quicken, a “small-business checkbook program.”

Scott brought marketing research into the product design process very early, and our explorations indicated that small business owners were looking for an easy-to-use ledger-type system, not an automated checkbook. The preliminary scope and direction of QuickBooks was reworked to match market desires, and the launch was among the most successful in history.

Designing products that suit market needs is crucial; understanding market needs up-front increases your chances of a successful launch. Before your design is set in stone, ask probing questions that explore and explain prospective users’ behaviors, problems, workarounds, irritations, and obstacles.

And, if they tell you that they want a “faster horse,” don’t stop the conversation there — explore the reasons for that desire. It’s certainly a cheaper way to learn what people will actually buy than launching a flawed product and playing catch-up later.



JENI SALL is CEO of Genesis Research Associates. She was Manager of Marketing Research at Apple from 1981-84, and conducted product development research as a consultant to Intuit from 1987 through 1999. For over 30 years, she has conducted breakthrough research for start-up and Fortune 500 companies in the consumer packaged goods, high technology, medical products, and service industries.

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3 Responses to Henry Ford and the Faster Horse

  1. Ron Manke Nov 17, 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    Although I agree that market research has it’s benefits, I do believe that experts in their field shouldn’t take it as gospel and change their long term product strategy based on it. (Unless of course they aren’t confident in their long term product strategy).

    For instance, although a lot of people may have assumed the Lisa was a failure, it actually laid the foundation for the Macintosh, which led to the iPhone, iPad and a host of other companies based on that technology.

    Sometimes companies have to invest in research and learn from their mistakes in order to grow. The biggest issue I see in larger companies is that they are very shortsighted and don’t consider launching a product unless they can see immediate financial benefit.

    This is one of the reasons Steve Jobs and Apple have had long term success, where others have failed trying to do the same thing.

  2. Brian D Dec 30, 2011 at 2:00 am #

    Of course now Apple is the most valuable tech company in the world. If Apple followed market research, we’d still be using floppy drives.

  3. Kenneth Huie Mar 1, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

    Jeni – thanks so much for providing your insights and for the powerful reminder that “Customers are not expert problem solvers. Coming up with a solution is your (our) job.” – Ken

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