If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse

There is a great quote from Henry Ford on the first car he built:

If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse

It is by far one of my favorite quote as it relates very well to the Internet industry and the whole customer-business relationship. It’s easy to take it very seriously and to think that what Ford meant with this quote is to ignore your customers and just do what you think is right, but it actually goes deeper.

I’m pretty sure that if Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, they’d have said something like faster horses and the reason is fairly simple: they couldn’t imagine anything else.

In fact, they didn’t want faster horses, they wanted a faster personal transportation method. It’s as simple as that. For Henry Ford, achieving this goal was absolutely impossible with a horse, so he came up with the idea of building a car that everybody could afford. Nobody knew they needed a car before they saw the Model-T (and knew they could afford it).

Twitter anybody? Twitter is the tool you never knew you needed before you had it: nobody wakes up in the morning with the needs for a tool like twitter, but the aggregation of different persons communication needs eventually led to the creation of twitter.

Twitter is the first obvious one that came to my mind, we can find plenty of other examples.

Customer needs on the web

How is this all related to customers needs on the Internet and to the whole customer-business relationship (note that the term customer is used in a very large context and can be your website’s visitors, readers, the people you build websites for, etc.)?

In fact it’s very simple:

Users will ask for tons of very precise features and it’s important to understand that they ask these features because it’s hard for them to think outside the constraints your product, website or service impose them.

What’s really important is to understand what lies behind these requests.

Do your website’s visitors ask for a certain feature because they simply want more exposure (egosystem)? In this case, you might think of a better or different idea than the feature they’re asking for. A feature that really answer their need and that is not limited by the external view users have on your product.

Do the customer you’re consulting for wants a certain feature on his website just to better communicate with his potential clients? If so, what the customer want is to better communicate: the feature he’s asking for might not be the best solution.

Innovation and feedback

The problem when you innovate and do things according to core customers needs and not feature requests is that you have no clue how it’s going to be received. That’s why you need feedback.

I posted a talk by Kevin Rose last week, and he said the worst thing you can do as a website owner is to pretend you really understand what your visitors want. To avoid this problem, he recommends to build features very quickly, release them and then test (feedback).

All in all, I guess the key is to act according to core customer needs (not feature requests) and put in place a good feedback loop so you can react quickly and make good decisions. Agree?