I think listening to potential customers and users is the single most important activity you should be involved in when creating a new product. In my experience the right type of conversations are what drive fantastic product ideas. Given the right approach a user will tell you what your next product should be.
So, how can it be the case the Steve Jobs was quoted in Business Week, May 25 1998:
“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
I don’t believe in focus groups either, but that is to do with the dynamic of a group of people and nothing to do with the value of listening to customers. All sorts of things come into play in a focus group and what you certainly cannot do is to carefully dig into what a user’s needs are and why they have those needs. What you are more likely to hear is what the loudmouth extrovert heard from someone in the pub the night before, not the introvert engineer at the back who is holding back from telling you about an insight that is going to define your next great product.
True, people don’t know what they want until you show them. You cannot expect a user, who has been doing something one way, perhaps for years, to imagine how life could be different. That’s your job. Just as you can’t expect a user to tell you that they need something they’ve never heard of. That’s your job too.
Apparently Jobs liked to quote Henry Ford to support his argument:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Now we’re wrong on both counts. Not only did Henry Ford never say that, as far as the Henry Ford Foundation can tell anyway, but to use that as an excuse for not asking people what they need is just dumb. What would we think if we heard a user of horses saying that he needed “faster horses”? Should we take it at face value, or should we apply just a smidgen of smarts and think beyond what the user has said. Maybe, just maybe, what the user meant was “I need a faster way to get from A to B”, or perhaps even “I need not to have to get from A to B at all”. Suddenly we’ve not only envisioned the motorised horse, but video conferencing and a whole bunch of products in between.
I met a travel agent one day at the start of the recession at one of those business breakfasts. He was desperately looking for new business customers to sell flights to. I said “maybe you should look at offering services which meet the same need as a flight without actually being a flight”. He looked at me blankly. “Like offering really good video conferencing so that folks don’t need to get on a plane at all”. He walked off to find a less crazed business contact.