All Posts A Faster Horse - When Not To Listen To Users

by: Laura Klein on Oct 2, 2009

Henry Ford once said that, if he’d asked his customers what they wanted, they’d have asked for a faster horse. In the high tech industry, this quote is often used to justify not talking to users. After all, if customers don’t know what they want, why bother talking to them? You need to talk to users because, if you ask the right questions, they will help you build a better product. The key is figuring out the right questions. For starters, users are great at telling you when there’s something wrong with your product. They can tell you exactly which parts of the product are particularly confusing for them or are keeping them from being happy, repeat customers. Figuring out what to do about those problems is your job. In general, users are not going to be able to answer the following types of questions:

  • What new technical innovation is going to revolutionize a particular industry?
  • What’s the next cool gadget that you’d like to buy?
  • Do you think that people like you would buy this new cool gadget that you’ve just learned about?
  • What new features would make this product more interesting/compelling/fun/easy to use? (although, this question becomes more answerable when the user is presented with some options for which features they might prefer.)
  • How exactly should we change the product to make it easier for you to use?

They are fantastic at answering questions like these:

  • What do you most love or hate about this product?
  • Do you find anything about this product hard to use or confusing?
  • Does this product solve your problem better or worse than what you’re currently doing?
  • How are you currently solving a particular problem that may or may not be addressed by this product?
  • What don’t you like about your current solutions for a particular problem?
  • Why did you choose this particular solution as opposed to another solution?

Obviously, there are innumerable other questions that you might want to ask your users, so how do you decide which ones they’ll be able to answer with any degree of accuracy?

Problems vs. Solutions

Users are much better at telling you about problems that they’re having than solutions that they want. In Ford’s example, when people asked for a faster horse, what they were really saying was that the horses they had were too slow. They didn’t specifically want a faster horse. They wanted a faster means of transportation that was no worse than a horse in other respects. Frequently in user tests or customer feedback sessions, customers will tell you very clearly, “I want x!” Your job is to understand why they want x and then to determine whether or not x is really the right solution. It’s not that they never have good solutions, but users tend to only look at the product from their own perspective and usage patterns, while you should be talking to lots of different types of users with lots of different types of problems. They’re not thinking about the product as a whole or how to fix things for the other several million people who might have slightly different problems. When users try to give you solutions, encourage them to talk about their problems instead. Then figure out what they’re really asking for, and give it to them.

Past vs. Future Events

It’s much easier for people to answer questions or give opinions about something specific that has already happened than about something that might happen in the future. Consider the question, “What do you want to eat tonight?” vs. the question, “What did you think of the meal you just ate?” For the vast majority of us, the second one is much easier to answer. It simply asks you to formulate a concrete opinion about a single event that has recently happened. The first question asks you to imagine all the various available options for food and make a decision about what you might like in the future based on probably imperfect information. This is true with products, as well. It will be much easier for your user to explain how performing a particular task went than to predict how he would like to perform that particular task in the future. That’s why, when you’re doing your preliminary research to determine product direction or early feature development, it’s very important to give users hands on tasks that they can perform for you and then give opinions on rather than to talk abstractly about the solution you’re considering providing for them with your product.

Users vs. Other People

Unless you’re really lucky, you’ve probably realized that people are terrible at figuring out what other people want. Perhaps you came to this realization on some birthday or other gift giving holiday. Users suffer from the same problems as gift givers. They’re almost always terrible at telling you how other people will react to a product. And yet, talk to just a few customers or user test participants, and you’re guaranteed to hear one of them say, “Well, it’s not for me, but my mom/friend/boss/brother would be really into this…” Another one you hear a lot is, “My mom/friend/boss/brother would never be able to use this. It’s way too complicated.” This information can be marginally useful if you’re trying to find the right customer segment, but take it with a grain of salt. Reassure the user that you’re also going to talk to people like their mom/friend/boss/brother, and what you’re really interested right now in is the user’s opinion. Then talk to the mom/friend/boss/brother to find out their real feelings. Chances are, the person you’re talking to doesn’t really know what anybody else wants as well as they think they do.

The Right Questions

So, what should Henry Ford have been asking his customers? Instead of, “What do you want?” he could have asked, “Is there anything you particularly like or don’t like about your horse and wagon?” If they chose not to buy a car, he could ask, “Why didn’t you buy that car?” Once they bought a car, he could have asked, “What made you decide to buy a car?” or “Was there anything you found particularly confusing or hard to use about your new car?” He could even have gone for a drive with some of them and observed the various problems that they encountered. In fact, there were dozens of things he could have done that might have helped him improve the design and marketing of his product. He just couldn’t ask them, “What do you want?” because they almost certainly would have said, "a faster horse." For more information on our approach to getting customer feedback, check out: