Listen to Consumers or Ignore Them?

by Kevin McFarthing

Listen to Consumers or Ignore Them?It’s the stuff of legend that Henry Ford is reported as saying “if I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”. This statement is trotted out (sorry….) to justify not doing consumer research on new products and services. The proposition is that consumers can’t tell you what they want; that they are unimaginative and uninterested until they see and touch the magical answer to all of their prayers, which our product will provide.

Of course there are some outstanding examples where extensive consumer research wasn’t done on highly successful products, where the vision and leadership of the innovator was proven to be correct. The best examples include Apple and Steve Jobs as well as Sony and Akio Morita.

Timeliness is another important parameter. Steve Jobs famously said about the NeXT computer that if he’d given consumers what they said they wanted, they would have developed a computer consumers would be happy with about a year later, not what they eventually produced. The argument is you need to anticipate consumer needs, especially in fast-moving fields. There is a strong point here, but it doesn’t mean you should ignore consumers.

Much more has been written about using consumers in innovation, from lead users to straightforward testers. But when should the different approaches be used? All too often though, the debate seems to polarize between “you can’t market research true innovation”; and “innovation only comes from consumers”, so here’s my attempt at some guidelines. These are inevitably rough, bearing in mind this is a blog rather than a book.

1. IF YOUR MARKET EXISTS WITH WELL-ESTABLISHED CONSUMER HABITS, AND YOUR PRODUCT IS INCREMENTAL….

In this situation, if you intend to invest anywhere near significant amounts of money, you would be foolish not to conduct thorough market research. First of all, you should understand consumer habits and product usage, together with attitudes and emotions around the product category. Next, use that information to derive real insights. Only at this stage should you come up with creative ideas with competitive advantage, stimulated by the insights.

Test your ideas qualitatively, refine them, hopefully confirm your insights, and develop your product. Finally, evaluate your product quantitatively, unless your launch is low key. Even if you’re convinced you have the right thing, consumer research gives you ideas for refinement, whether that is communication, product, packaging, price or another parameter.

2. IF YOUR MARKET EXISTS WITH WELL-ESTABLISHED CONSUMER HABITS, AND YOUR PRODUCT IS BREAKTHROUGH….

Again, my belief is that you would be foolish not to conduct market research. This includes the creative stage. The existing consumer habits provide the context for your source of business. You will be attempting to change the market in some way with your breakthrough product, and consumer use will alter as a result. So test it. Even if consumer research confirms your beliefs, you will almost always find out new information that again allows you to improve your product.

You should also consider the lead user concept, most notably brought to prominence by Eric Von Hippel’s work. This shows that the consumers who are most enthusiastic and creative can play with your product and improve it; indeed they can change it completely. They can also act as communication multipliers. Good examples include Lego Mindstorms and the hacked Microsoft Kinect.

Unless you are selling direct to consumers, you should not forget the retailer, whether of the bricks or clicks variety. You may be passionately committed to your product, but to the retailer you’re potentially just another supplier. What justification do you have that the product will sell? Consumer research data will help you make the case, particularly in the context of a potential disruption to the retailer’s existing business.

3. IF YOUR MARKET DOESN’T EXIST….

If the market doesn’t exist, then the product is automatically a breakthrough. Whether it will succeed or not is a different question. One important factor is your brand recognition. Some brands are so strong they can move across diverse categories with ease; indeed a brand like Virgin has gained consumer permission to play in fields as different as airlines and cola. Part of the brand essence is its ability to diversify.

Such brands and companies are few and far between. Apple has the internal brilliance and external love to do virtually anything it wants. Mere mortals should pay close attention to consumers, even with breakthrough products intended to create new markets.

New products in new markets rarely turn out as the originators intended. Consumers shape the market evolution. For example, Google today is a totally different company to that launched as a search engine, driven by creativity and consumer experimentation. So don’t constrain it at the start by using market research techniques, tools and expectations that have been designed for incremental innovation in existing markets. That doesn’t make sense.

Quite often the best information is gained by doing small experiments or test markets. Alternatively you can launch the product in a low risk way and let users play with it, communicating in a (hopefully) viral fashion. Lead users take on an even more important role here.

Great products can start this way, often masked as beta versions or prototypes, but continually feeding back consumer experience for iterations and improvements. Consumers not only interact, inform and improve the product; they do your marketing as well.

Finally there will be situations where, despite all the contradictory information and consumer research you have, you believe so passionately that what you have and plan to do is right. Recognize the risks, and if you’re prepared to take them, make sure they are proportional to the return – and good luck!

image credit: life2getherblog.com

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Kevin McFarthingKevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions, and also has experience in life sciences.

16 comments

  1. Nice article. I’m wondering how something like the Kindle Fire would fit into this categorisation, having broken into an existing market but leveraged the Amazon brand and content ecosystem to really differentiate from iPad.

  2. Hi Brad, good question. I would put the Kindle Fire into category 2, albeit not neatly. It is playing to existing habits (reading) in addition to existing habits of iPad users, and people who aspire to use a tablet. The tablet market does exist, but it is still in its early days, and is far from being fully cooked.

    It leverages Amazon’s brand, and as they are the retailer as well it takes another piece out of the picture. Even with these advantages, the product must still perform. One of the biggest mistakes a marketer can make is to exploit brand equity to launch a new product, rather than considering how a new product can add to that equity.

    In that context I would hope Amazon did a lot of consumer research to make sure they could position the product appropriately, at the right price, with sufficient differentiation and appeal, the right features and utility, user experience, aesthetics etc. Looking at the reviews, 6k of the almost 12k reviews on amazon.com give it 5/5, so it looks like they did a good job.

    Kevin

  3. People don’t read and think about Ford’s quote carefully enough before they draw their conclusion. Ford was right to ignore their request for a horse, and right to embrace their request for “faster”.

    You need to listen hard to your customers problems and desires (“my horse is too slow”) but be cautious about their suggestions (“can you make mh horse faster?”).

    Don’t ask people what they want, ask them what their problems are.

  4. Hi David, thanks for the comment. I agree with you about Ford’s comments. If he’d probed further, he’d have found it wasn’t just about speed. It was also about things like comfort (no cover on a horse) and ride quality in carriages; about maintenance (the mess in the stables and on the roads); and status. So yes, ask about problems, listen rather than hear, look for understanding and insight not just information.

    Kevin

  5. This article confuses two different tasks.

    The first task is testing the acceptance of a product which has already been developed (or, at least, some kind of prototype). Clearly, it makes sense to test these on prospective customers.

    The second task is coming up with ideas for new products. This is what the Ford and Jobs quotes are referring to. Customers usually can’t invent products for you – that’s your job. A similar quote that restates this, is “in 1940, no housewife could have told you that she wanted a microwave oven.”

    There is no real difficulty here, as long as you distinguish between customer needs and customer wishes. Customers know what they need (for example safe, reliable, fast transportation) and you can ask them about it. However, what they wish for is limited by their experience (and, perhaps, imagination). It would therefore hardly be surprising if someone who in 1890 needed better transportation wished for a better horse.

  6. This is not antinomic:

    Edwards Deming said “Innovation comes from the producer — not from the customer.” Steve Jobs would sure agree with him.

    And he also says “Our customers should take joy in our products and services.” Steve Jobs would probably again agree.

    You shouldn’t ask customers to DESIGN your products, you should try to guess their IMPLICIT needs based on your own inner voice because themselves don’t know how to explicit it.

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