Fast HorseA friend of mine, Gab Goldenberg, posted today a very entertaining tale of a short sighted product developer.  In it, he outlines the tragic tale of a developer who devotes his life to developing what he is just sure is the next big thing. Unfortunately for the developer his product fizzles when it hits the market.  The reason? He failed to ask the market what it wanted effectually ignoring their wishes.

This surely happens often. What seems to be an amazing idea to the individual who birthed it falls upon deaf ears (and closed wallets) in the marketplace.

Perhaps its my nature to be contrarian but as much as the post resonated with me, I couldn’t help but think (with the utmost respect for him!) that perhaps he was wrong. Okay, not wrong, but slightly not-quite-right.

Insert: disclaimer that every situation is different and it always depends.

Albeit it trite, the first thing that came to my mind after reading Gab’s post was the Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

I commented on Gab’s post to this effect.  His response was that perhaps the solution was to convince them that your product was faster than any Arabian horse out there.  And surely that is a reasonable approach.

I do think that it is important to engage with your consumers (potential or otherwise) when developing new products. That part I think Gab got right.  Where I disagree however, is how you engage.  There are of course times when it makes perfect sense to ask your customers what they want.  My favorite example of this right now is UntitledStartup’s Backstage environment.  Go check it out! They’ve asked their consumers to tell them what they want – precisely. Other users can vote on the ideas and so on. Surely they’ve got some pretty amazing product development ideas out of that.

But what if we’re asking the wrong question? What if instead of asking “What do you want?” we asked instead, “What is the desired end result/product/solution you’d like to see?”

Had Henry Ford asked his customers what their goals were and what they were trying to get out of a faster horse, surely they would have said: “Well, thank you for asking Mr. Ford. What we are after is an expedited arrival time.” Ford could then ponder on their ACTUAL want: a way to get there faster. Then – he could give them not a faster horse, but an automobile.

So, maybe asking our customers what they want us to make isn’t as important as asking them what they’re trying do…what would make your life better or easier?

What could we do then?