The customer is a great resource for generating new ideas and validating them in the same time. I consider the customer part of the product development team.
The problem is that this team member is not the go-to person for solutions, but rather for helping you identify problems and opportunities.
Let’s have a look at 2 famous quotes about listening to the customers:
“It’s not the consumers’ job to figure out what they want.” — Steve Jobs
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”- Henry Ford
These two quotes are often used as arguments in discussions with people who think innovation is created only by true visionaries who ignore customer input and instead use their prophetic vision for innovating.
Both statements are valid, but are are often miss-interpreted.
Yes, if you asked people before June 2007 about what kind of phone they want, they probably wouldn’t have answered — a touch screen only phone. But that’s not the correct question to ask.
Instead, they probably would have said what devices they love carrying with them daily and why. Like a smartphone for connecting to Internet and talking to friends or an iPod for listening to music on the go.
Now let’s read part of the transcript of Steve Job’s presentation at the launch of the first iPhone in 2007:
Well, today we’re introducing three revolutionary products… An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone… are you getting it? These are not three separate devices, this is one device, and we are calling it iPhone. Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.
Apple’s product people observed how their customers interact with the products they already had great experience with, like the iPod, the iMac and their Mac OS. Then they found a better and more efficient way to ease those interactions, resulting in a more delightful product.
An innovator should seek to understand his customers using many methods. It can be empirical, pure observation, intuition or any other. He could also choose to ignore this input if he discovers a better way to solve the puzzle. Maybe using other sources of inspiration, like competition analysis.
The same for Henry Ford’s famous “Faster Horse” quote. Yes, if he asked the customers about what they want, they would have said a faster horse and that’s a great input. Like I mentioned above, it’s not their job to find solutions. It’s yours.
Ford’s problem to solve would have been how to help people get from point A to point B in an easier, pleasant and more efficient way.
How Ford solved his puzzle?
Contrary to the popular belief, Henry Ford didn’t invent the car or the interchangeable parts. He managed to find a way to mass-produce cars at a better price than his competition, creating a new and growing market. That’s innovation.
Are we paying attention to the customers?
Alpha surveyed more than 550 product managers and leaders. The results shows that the main source for product and feature ideas from product people’s perspective is Direct Customer Feedback (60%) followed by Team Brainstorming(57%), Market Research (34%) and Competitor Products (28%).
This is great, so we know where to find inspiration, right? No.
On the other hand, 96% of the product managers said that they spend most of their time communicating with their colleagues and clients in meetings or via Slack/Email. Only 26% of them mentioned that they do user research or get feedback from them on daily basis.
There is clear gap between where product teams focus their time and where the main sources for ideas generation are. If we want to look for inspiration we cannot ignore the customer.
Taking an outside-in approach will allow us to understand the customer’s needs, then our job is to figure out how we can solve those needs in the best way possible.