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Do customers know what they want or need?

Let’s start with some definitions.

According to Google, want means to have a desire to possess or do (something); wish for; lack or be short of something desirable or essential.
To need something means: a thing that is wanted or required, a necessity or obligation.

And a task is something that needs to be completed within a defined period of time.

Hold that thought for a moment.

Steve Jobs said: A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Phil Libin (Evernote CEO) said: Customer feedback is great for telling you what you did wrong. It’s terrible at telling you what you should do next. And Henry Ford said: If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.

Are they right? Do customers really not know what they want? Does it not make sense to listen to customers? Should we not take customer feedback into consideration as we innovate and design new products? It’s important to listen to customers; you just need to make sure to ask the right questions.

Steve Jobs also said that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it and I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room.

I think that what he said really supports the need to understand your customers: who they are and what tasks or jobs they are trying to do. Design with the end in mind. I think design should be done with customers. As customers, we think we need this or we need that; but in the end, why do we have those needs? What are we really trying to do? Once we can answer that, once companies hear what it is that we are trying to achieve, then and only then can they begin to design products – and yes, in some cases, products that we didn’t even know we needed.

According to Wikipedia, human-centered design (or user-centered, as the redirect points us) is a process (not restricted to interfaces or technologies) in which the needs, wants, and limitations of end users of a product, service, or process are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process. User-centered design can be characterized as a multi-stage problem solving process that not only requires designers to analyse and foresee how users are likely to use a product, but also to test the validity of their assumptions with regard to user behaviour in real world tests with actual users. Such testing is necessary as it is often very difficult for the designers of a product to understand intuitively what a first-time user of their design experiences, and what each user’s learning curve may look like.

The chief difference from other product design philosophies is that user-centered design tries to optimize the product around how users can, want, or need to use the product, rather than forcing the users to change their behavior to accommodate the product.

I think therein lies the rub – optimize the product without forcing the user to change behavior to accommodate the product. You can’t lead a horse to water and force him to drink, right? Well, I believe the rub here is that we need to understand what tasks the customer is trying to do; we’re just going to simplify those tasks with a product or service we design. It means that we’ve taken into account what the user is trying to do when we designed the product rather than creating a need for a product after it was created, i.e., it’s not backwards, as many believed was Steve Jobs intent.

People don’t know what they want because they’re focused on what they are trying to do, not on designing products – that’s your job; if you can solve that problem for them – design a product to help them do what they’re trying to do – then you’ll sell some products and have some happy customers.

You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new. -Steve Jobs