One of the more well-known legacies about Steve Jobs is his assertion that, contrary to popular belief, the customer isn’t always right. Over the years, Jobs shared the sentiment in a variety of different ways, though the idea was similar–that many times, the customer has no idea what they’re talking about.
That isn’t meant to insult the customer, it’s just that if the thing you’re building is new or unfamiliar, there’s a pretty good chance your customer will have no idea what they want. They probably have no idea that they even want it at all.
A popular quote from Jobs goes like this:
Some people say give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d ask customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse.’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.
I’m not sure exactly where this quote comes from, and apparently the internet isn’t either (I couldn’t find a direct source). Still, it’s pretty close to a few others. For example, this is from a 1985 interview with Playboy shortly after the introduction of the Macintosh.
We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.
The second comes from an interview with BusinessWeek not longer after Jobs had returned to Apple. Jobs was asked if Apple did market research when developing the iMac, which had come out that year. His answer:
We have a lot of customers, and we have a lot of research into our installed base. We also watch industry trends pretty carefully. But in the end, for something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.
Which, let’s be honest, is absolutely true. A lot of times you customer won’t understand something until you show it to them, especially when it’s something new. Your customer doesn’t know what they don’t know, which means that most of the time they can’t possibly tell you what they want in a completely new or unfamiliar product.
That’s one of the reasons Steve Jobs was considered such a visionary–he had an uncanny ability to understand how devices would add value to people’s lives, even when people couldn’t have dreamed there was a place for them in their lives.
Jobs understood that what he often referred to as “revolutionary new products” meant dreaming beyond what his customers understood. He understood it meant his team had to “think different.”
Except, I don’t think Jobs was trying to say (as many people have suggested) that you shouldn’t listen to your customer, or that “the customer isn’t always right.” I think Jobs was saying something entirely different.
You absolutely should listen to your customers. Sometimes they’ll be right, and sometimes they won’t. That’s not the point.
Here’s what I mean: There’s a difference between trying to build products by asking customers what they want (especially when they often don’t know), and listening to how your customers respond to whatever it is you made. Your customer may have no idea what they want but they definitely know how they feel about the thing you just built.
It’s an important distinction because even though the customer isn’t always right, sometimes they are. Sometimes the way they respond to your product gives you insight that can help you make it better.
Launching a product into the world introduces it to experiences, and use cases, and perspectives you couldn’t have foreseen while you were making it. When your team makes something, it is so intimately involved in the process that it’s only able to view the product through that focused lens of understanding.
Your team can’t possibly know what it’s like to experience your product for the first time. It can’t imagine the different ways it might be used or how it will fit into different people’s lives.
Even if you make your product for yourself, as Jobs said the Macintosh team did, you aren’t the only one who will use it, and you possibly foresee all of the things your customers will do. You also can’t discover all of the potential problems until it’s in the hands of your customers. That’s okay.
In fact, it’s quite wonderful when people take the thing you made and use it in creative ways that you hadn’t imagined. It’s also an opportunity to make it even better based on their feedback. That’s why even though your customers may not know what they want, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to them.