What customers want

Gregory Ciotti has an interesting column on LinkedIn today, “Why Steve Jobs Didn’t Listen to His Customers.”

The subject is market research, and the question is: Should you ask customers what they want? My answer: Sure. Why not? You going promulgate an edict: “Never ask customers what they want.”?

The big issue is what you do with this information. Well, why not just build what they say they want? Sometimes this works. If I had to guess, I’d say it works pretty often because you can reliably predict that customers want problems fixed. As Ciotti notes:

Perhaps this is the truth behind Apple’s innovation — Steve Jobs did actually listen to customers, but only to find out which problems they faced, and to identify the biggest points of friction they had.

Wouldn’t this make you reactive, as Ciotti suggests? He quotes, with appropriate caveat, Henry Ford’s supposed remark that “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” We snicker at this, but think about it. If you could have offered a faster horse at a competitive price, you could have made some money back then.

What about “disruptive innovation,” I hear you ask? If you’re agile enough, you can play this game too. Most “disruptive innovations,” or what their inventors think will be “disruptive innovations,” are going to fail in the marketplace.  So let the innovators use their time and money trying out the 99 out of a hundred that go nowhere. And when somebody does stumble upon something new and wonderful and marketable, jump in. What makes this work is that quite often, the inventor of the one-in-a-hundred isn’t the one to make the big bucks from it. IBM, as is often said, didn’t invent the computer. And Apple didn’t invent the portable digital music player or the cell phone. But this does put an enormous premium on orientation. If you’re going to play this strategy, let me ask you, “What are you doing, specifically, to keep your orientation more accurate than your competitors’, and how do you know that it is?”

Here’s a way to resolve the question of market research. If you look at the Jobs quote above, you can see that he’s talking about expectations. Customers expect your stuff to work, for example. In Boyd’s framework, this is cheng. But you make the big bucks when you “meet customer expectations” — cheng — but also hit them with the unexpected, the “wow!” factor, chi.

Market research can be a huge help with the cheng side. Where do you get ideas for chi? The answer is Fingerspitzengefühl (that helped a lot, didn’t it?) In other words, there is no formula. It has to come from your intuition, experience, meditation, black magic, whatever, and you can certainly throw ideas from customers into the mix.

On the subject of “disruptive innovation,” did you see Jill Lepore’s wonderful debunking of the topic, “The disruption machine,” in The New Yorker?

 

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