If I had listened to customers...

"If I had listened to customers, I'd have given them a faster horse."
– Henry Ford

Does this statement fly in the face of accepted wisdom about marketing and product development?  Henry Ford of course went on to develop the first mass producible car, which sold in huge (for the day) volumes so clearly he had got something right with his product-market fit.

Well what the great innovators know is that it is not what your customers say that is important, but what they mean.  Before the car was invented, how could a focus group consisting of walkers and horse riders possibly conclude that what they really want is a car?

Likewise, when Steve Jobs first conceived the iPod, the market was seemingly well served with Sony's Walkman, but looking back it is hard to conceive why anybody would choose a larger box that could only play 2 hours of songs pre-recorded onto magnetic tape.

This is the dilemma for radical innovators developing products for completely new markets – customers do not know what they want until they get to use it for themselves.  So how do the great serial innovators conceive of new products?

Well just recently we concluded a 4 week-long student entrepreneur course.  We invited them to conceive a new product aimed at addressing any of the opportunities and issues arising out of “aging populations”.  What distinguished the winner from the also-rans was subtle and yet also very clear.  The winners had inferred the unarticulated needs of their target customer base and developed a product that was conceptually simple and yet filled a gap in human (emotional) need.  More than that, the need became so obvious once the team pitched their idea that it was a wonder that nobody had come up with it before.  Yet they had not and to ram their point home the team placed some of the existing (and distinctly clunky and patronizing) products on the table in front of the judges in a theatrical gesture that clearly worked.  It made the judges feel quite uncomfortable. 

What was the great insight?  Simply that as people start to lose mobility through osteoporosis or arthritis, all they really want is to remain as normal as possible for as long as possible.  Yet most of the kitchen implements for those with mobility impairments are patronizing in the extreme.  Now I am not going to reveal the team’s invention – they at least deserve the chance to commercialize it, but by reframing the problem from how do we do the same jobs when we are less able to how do we avoid having to do those increasingly difficult jobs in the first place, they created a product that helped the infirm retain their dignity and independence for longer.

In the end it is about the outcome.  Radical innovations find more effective ways to meet customer needs often by finding ways around the constraints that limit customers’ and competitors’ imagination. 

A Century on of course it is blindingly obvious that mechanical propulsion was always going to be a more effective way of getting from A to B than trying to breed or genetically modify a faster horse.  Just as obviously - being able to play 5 or more days of music that you can buy from practically anywhere and store on a minuscule device was going to be popular - so why on earth didn't Sony come up with it?

Banner image © Mark Neild 2013  Dolphin in Bay of islands New Zealand taken shortly before we went swimming with them.