How to learn what people want (but don’t yet know they want)

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” Steve Jobs famously said about the importance of not depending on customers for new product cues.

Obviously, most of the time, people do know what they want — a bigger pair of pants, a hotter bowl of soup, a car with better MPG, a softer bed. Each is an example of consumer requests for products that extend along metrics that consumers (and the companies serving them) already know well. Jobs’ statement applies to fundamental innovations, products that leapfrog up, over and outside the labels that most people use to understand their daily lives.

Jobs’ “don’t ask, just give it to them” quip was made in 1998, not long after Apple launched the iMac, and still years before Apple exploded the mobile phone and personal computer markets with the amazing category-busting iPhone.

If you can’t reliably just ask customers what they want, how can a company conceive amazing new product categories? As Racery seeks to build out its platform for virtual races, we often ponder this question.

The bigger and more culturally embedded an assumption is, the more likely we’re blind to it. People who live in glass houses throw stones because they don’t realize they live in glass houses. And the pot happily calls the kettle black because it’s oblivious to its own blackness.

How can a company get outside its own industry’s invisible glass house to launch big innovation? Here are a few possible strategies:

  • First, ironically, you should sometimes avoid asking questions. If you can articulate a question in a way a consumer can understand, you are probably both already stuck inside the status quo, shackled to common labels and categories. (As Henry Ford famously said, consumers would have asked for faster horses if he’d inquired about their transportation needs.)
  • Hire people who have lived in other countries. Research shows that companies the market values for being radically innovative are led by people who have lived abroad.
  • Talk constantly with people from outside your own industry — they’re less likely to share the assumptions and blinders that constrain you, your customers and your competitors.
  • Keep nudging and keep listening. Often a radical innovation lies just outside the envelope of your current assumption scheme. Here’s a Jobs quote that illustrates this point: “Sometimes the technology just doesn’t want to show you what it can do. You have to keep pushing on it and asking the engineers over and over again to explain why we can’t do this or that—until you truly understand it. A lot of times, something you ask for will add too much cost to the final product. Then an engineer might say casually, “Well, it’s too bad you want A, which costs $1,000, instead of B, which is kind of related to A. Because I can do B for just 50¢.” And B is just as good as A. It takes time to work through that process—to find breakthroughs but not wind up with a computer no one can afford.”
  • Rather than asking people what they want — and getting requests for features that are simply extensions of current products — watch people closely. (Here’s how this works at Uber.) How are they using the product? What behaviors or needs are adjacent to the use of your product, either in time or space? Where are there gaps in your customers’ routines, disruptions they’re blind to?
  • Often, in hockey, the person with the puck doesn’t have a clean shot on the goal. So rather than taking the shot, the team keeps the puck moving from player to player until a clean line of sight opens up. Apple had a similar approach, apparently. Here’s Jobs explaining his job: “And my job is to work with sort of the top 100 people, that’s what I do. That doesn’t mean they’re all vice presidents. Some of them are just key individual contributors. So when a good idea comes, you know, part of my job is to move it around, just see what different people think, get people talking about it, argue with people about it, get ideas moving among that group of 100 people, get different people together to explore different aspects of it quietly, and, you know – just explore things.”

Of course, all this isn’t to imply that companies should not give customers what they ask for. Sometimes the soup does simply need to be hotter or the car does just need to go faster. But remember that if you’re hoping to give someone a truly mind-blowing birthday gift, you probably shouldn’t ask them to describe it ahead of time. Instead, watch them closely.