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Henry Ford's "Faster Horse" Quote

You may have heard the (apocryphal) Henry Ford quote:
If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have said "a faster horse".
Over at the On Product Management blog, Saeed gives his take on this infamous quote. He "hates" it, and gives some compelling reasons. Saeed is spot on in his explanations.

Personally, I think the quote is great, but it's a matter of interpretation.

The valid point of the quote is not that it's a bad idea to facilitate a conversation with your market to better understand it. The valid points are:
  1. You must ask the right questions to get valuable answers.
  2. You must interpret the answers thoughtfully - often outside their direct meaning - to glean reliable information.
  3. Asking questions is not always the best way to "listen" to your market. (E.g., sometimes pure observational studies are more reliable.)
Nonetheless, I find the quote is helpful to combat "armchair product management" in the product development organization. You probably know the drill. An engineer, sales person, or executive insists on a feature and justifies it by saying that many customers have requested it, as if no deeper analysis is necessary to determine whether we should add the feature to the product.

But in our conversations with customers, we shouldn't be focusing on features. We should be striving to understand the problems they face. They are not experts on the features or solutions; they are experts on their experiences and challenges. If we ask them what they "want", they are likely to think of solutions and short-circuit the all-important understanding of the problems they face.

The Henry Ford quote (whether he actually said it or not) is a stark and simple falsification of the notion that a direct poll of customers is sufficient to draw conclusions about features. We should not use the quote to dismiss the importance of listening to our market, however.

If you found this blog entry enlightening, you might also enjoy another one on five ways companies make product decisions.


Jeffrey Henning said…
Well, to quote Ford, "History is more or less bunk." :-) But I definitely agree with your post, as I've written about here:
Henry Ford on Market Research
Roger L. Cauvin said…
I recall that blog entry you wrote, Jeffrey. In fact, left a couple of comments on it.
Unknown said…
All so true. As Scott Sehlhorst at Tyner Blain said, "We don't want customers to DEFINE our products; we want customers to INSPIRE our products." Instead of talking about features, discuss PROBLEMS.
Jeremy Gorr said…
I think this is a great example of how great product management cannot be formulaic. It will never be so simple as: "Listen to your customers and do what they say". Or, "don't do what they say, they don't know what they need."

It will always require human discernment based on the situation, the problem, and the market. That's why product managers will never be replaced by robots. I hope.
Anonymous said…
This is a great sentence, but it is only applicable to certain group of people. These people are visionaries in charge of creation and innovation and understand the product in much greater detail compare to an average consumer or middle manage. If Steve Job wanted to create double folding iPhone and slider keypad and pen for touch screen, then he listened to customer. All great people like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs,... observed the market instead of listing to the noises and offer something that the customer could not think of. Well obviously this does not apply to retail shop, assembly factories or service sector which must listen and obey the customer.
Klaus said…
It's simple. If you want yo make money ask your customer. If you want to change the world, then don't.
Roger L. Cauvin said…
Klaus, I disagree it's as simple as you portray. Customers suggest ideas and features they will never buy or use. To know what they will actually buy and use, you must probe more deeply into the problems they face, design experts must think creatively about the best ways to address these problems, and you must run experiments to validate your hypotheses.
iqraja said…
On the launch of Macintosh computer, Steve was asked if he has done any research on if there is any market for this computer. In a nearly offended tone he replied “Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the telephone?

Asked how much research and focus groups are done to guide apple when he introduced the iPad, jobs famously quipped, “None, it isn’t the consumer’s job to know what they want. It’s hard for consumer to tell you what they want when they have never seen anything remotely like it”.

-- Steve Jobs, Company-Apple, Sales-$108 billion, Market value-$546 billion
Teresa Torres said…
I feel like it's a product blogger's rite of passage to write about the "faster horse" quote. Here's mine:

How to Talk to Customers Despite Henry Ford and Steve Jobs

I do agree the quote is useful for combatting so and so asked for it, we have to build it. But the dark side is people use it to argue that customers don't know what they want. And while that may be true, we still need to talk to them to learn what their needs are. We just have to ask the right questions.
Roger L. Cauvin said…
Great blog entry (not surprisingly), Teresa! The problem isn't talking to prospects; it's asking the wrong questions and expecting to get reliable information that most prospects can't provide.

The quote (apocryphal or not) teaches a vital lesson to product managers, but is definitely subject to misinterpretation.

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