Faster Horses… and Customer Outcomes


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Are you asking your customers the right questions?

We all know the Henry Ford quote that goes like this:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses

(It’s fair to note that some don’t believe he actually said this, but let’s go with it.) It’s cited often when naysayers try to tell us that customers don’t know what they want, i.e., customers can’t help us innovate because they just want “faster horses.” Instead, they feel that some visionary can create a better product; the problem is, these visionaries don’t come along every day.

So back to the faster horses problem. To that I say, “That’s what happens when you ask the wrong question!” This is an issue that I’ve been calling the “Henry Ford Principle” in recent conversations.

In truth, most customers don’t know what they want. And that’s OK. They don’t know what they want because they’re focused on what they are trying to do, not on designing products – that’s your job; if you can solve that problem for them – design a product to help them do what they’re trying to do – then you’ll sell some products and have some very happy customers.  

Steve Jobs said: You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.

This is true. So, don’t ask them what they want. Ask them what they’re trying to do, what they’re trying to achieve. Ask them about their pain points, their needs, their desired outcomes in what they’re doing. 

If you ask them what they want, they’ll kill you with features and enhancements that will have that faster horse looking like an alien with three eyes, four ears, five legs and seven tails that trots sideways. None of the enhancement requests will be cohesive or make sense to the big picture. You’ll just keep adding on more features and functionality, until, in the end, you have a product that’s far too complex to use and doesn’t suit anyone’s needs. (I’ve seen this happen! It’s not pretty.)

Instead, step back and ask customers about their pain points with the current product, what it’s not doing for them, what they’re trying to achieve that they can’t. Or bypass thinking about the current product; focus on a situation for which you’ll develop a new or better solution. Focus on what customers are trying to do and uncover unmet needs to aid in your new product design efforts.

I think a good approach is this:

  • Identify the need and level set: ask about the pain points, needs, outcomes; identify the problem to solve; get at the root cause for a truly successful product
  • Develop some success metrics: how will you know that you’ve met your customers’ needs? solved their problems?
  • Ideate: brainstorm and develop a couple of solid ideas based on what you heard (here’s where the visionary in you and your team might come out!)
  • Co-create: take some ideas, develop, and iterate – with customers
  • Develop: based on co-creation and iteration, select the final product design and build it
  • Test your product: this will be a larger test than to those who helped co-create
  • Measure performance/success: how well does this product help customers achieve their desired outcomes? what’s the experience?
  • Continuous listening: over time, the needs and outcomes evolve and so should the product

Does that sound too complex? It shouldn’t. The customer needs to be at the center of your product design process. If not, and your competitors include them, who do you think will have the advantage?

This doesn’t mean every product is going to be designed in this manner. Sometimes, products just happen because someone is truly a visionary and has an amazing idea. And there’s a willing and ready audience for it. But keep this in mind: If you don’t have a customer for your product, then you don’t have a product; you just have an idea.

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask; for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes. -Albert Einstein

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Annette Franz
Annette Franz is founder and Chief Experience Officer of CX Journey Inc. She is an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, consultant, and speaker. She has 25+ years of experience in helping companies understand their employees and customers in order to identify what makes for a great experience and what drives retention, satisfaction, and engagement. She's sharing this knowledge and experience in her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the "Customer" in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business).


  1. Well done piece…we make great errors when we think we have all the customer learning we need to guarantee success simply by asking our customers about their needs and expectations. Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel said, “Breakthroughs come from an instinctive judgment of what customers might want if they knew to think about it.” Getting customers to dream with you can provide important insights that can inform where customers might be going. Questions like: “What is something no one in our industry is doing that you wish someone would could do?” can unearth an array of helpful customer intelligence.

    You remind us that customers are highly complex and ever changing. We must remain grounded in a deep understanding of our customers–their needs, expectations, hopes and aspirations. But, despite our most refined, highly informed customer knowledge, it still requires a leap of faith that “if you build it, they will come.”

  2. I recently read a wonderful book called “What Customers Want” by Anthony Ulwick. In it the authors describes a process very similiar to Annette’s which he calls ODI – Outcome Driven Innovation.

    Ulwick tells us that customers have “jobs-to-be-done” and that value is anything that improves the outcomes of the job. He further makes the point that developing a solution and then trying to discover a problem to solve is one of the primary reasons that new products fail at a crazy high rates. So, I think Ulwick and Annette are in good company with each other.

    As a final point, I recommend that in addition to talking and listening, the people on the project spend time watching users try to do the job and come to their own conclusions about where they can add serious value.

  3. Thanks, Chip!

    And, Sam, thanks for mentioning that book. I’ll find it and add it to my reading list. And excellent point about observing users “in their natural environment” trying to do that job.

    Annette 🙂

  4. Great advice well explained Annette. As usual, I could not agree more. One thing that really irritates me is when something goes wrong and an organisation asks me, ‘what could we have done better/differently?’ – most annoying – it should not be the customer who has to advise the company as to what they SHOULD be doing!!

    Asking the RIGHT questions is actually a leadership skill/trait (in my opinion) – I do not think that many people in leadership positions possess the skill though – brutal, but true!

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Hi Annette

    Thanks for a very pragmatic post.

    As Sam mentioned, Tony Ulwick at Strategyn (and Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School both) developed the idea of ‘jobs-to-be-done’ as the foundation for the fuzzy front-end of innovation. Asking customers what they are trying to do and then looking for better solutions to help them do it is the key to success in innovation. Research by Strategyn has identified that taking a jobs-drive approach is successful at creating winning innovations 80% of the time, a huge improvement on the 20% success rate of thinking up new ideas and hoping they will work.

    Ian’s suggestion that ‘it should not be the customer who has to advise the company as to what they SHOULD be doing’ may be right in principle, but it is not right in practice. Research by Nesta, the UK Govt’s Innovation Agency, identified that customers actually spend 50% more on developing new innovations than all businesses combined together. As Von Hippel et al describe in a paper on ‘The Age of the Consumer-Innovator’, customers have a huge role to play in advising companies what they should be doing.

    As you quite rightly suggest, the more we involve customers in the experience design process, the better the resulting experience will probably be.

    Graham Hill

    Disclosure: I was an Associate Partner at Strategy UK a few years ago.

  6. Hello Graham,

    I am in complete agreement with you and would like to advance your last point about involving customers in the design of experiences. When we talk about customer value creation we also talk about co-creation. This means that the customer and their partner(s) work together to solve a unique problem which, at the end of the day, may be not as unique as thought. Thus, the solution can be adapted to many customers, which helps pay for the early activities.

    Anyway, co-creation is not only what we do when we order at Amazon or specify all the options on a new car but what happens when a design engineer wants to have her new chip manufactured at TSMC. The engineer has access to all tool capabilities, process variables, capability roadmaps, etc. and so winds up with a device that can be manufactured into the future. The same approach works very well for experiences.


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