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Should Innovators Listen to Their Customers?

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — Henry Ford

“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.” — Steve Jobs

What do the above statements show? Should innovators listen to their customers? Do you think that if Henry Ford and Steve Jobs had listened to their customers, Ford Cars or iPhones would not have existed? There is a wonderful article called “Why Steve Jobs Never Listened to His Customers” by Gregory Ciotti which poses this question and is a must read.

Agree, disagree or maybe, you should definitely read the article. The questions it raises and how it makes you think about entrepreneurship is important. The article and the subsequent comments got me thinking. What exactly is an innovative product or service and what role do end users play in its development. Our history is filled with stories of how individuals, even in the face of cynicism and opposition, went ahead with their efforts to invent and innovate great new concepts and products. They believed in their ideas and visions so much that those others views just did not matter. Galileo, Gandhi, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Lee Iacocca, Gordon Moore and Steve Jobs are just a few of the many innovators that come to mind.

For them, it always was, “If you build it, they will come.”

So, is there a type of innovation, which, should not be customer tested at its inception? What would that kind of innovation scenario be? How does the innovator decide whether he should engage customers or not? Lots of questions spring to mind, unfortunately, not enough answers.


For me, this seems more like Creation vs. Enhancement. Innovation, I believe can apply to either case. Creating something new and enhancing an existing product to meet a totally new need are both innovations. I believe focus grouping and customer testing is most applicable when there are enhancements or improvements to something that already exists. The first iPhone, even though built on existing concepts, was, for all practical purposes, a radical new creation. It totally redefined the mobile phone from what we had known it to be at that time. I don’t believe focus groups at that point would have been helpful. The users’ perception and expectation would have been based on what they already knew. Their whole expectation would have been based on what they knew.

On the other hand, I believe enhancements can be customer tested. You already have a product which people are used to and hence upgrades or modifications are something they can relate to. This allows them to give an opinion about its merits. Redesigns, added features, extra services, etc. are all things that can be very innovative and add great value to a product or service. Cup holders in cars, when initially introduced by GM, were optional. But they became so popular that GM soon made it standard.

Personally, while introducing a new product or service, I always start small and it has always worked for me. I introduce the product/service based on my years of experience, confidence in the product, and a gut belief that in this big, wide world there must be at least a few more people who think like me and could possibly give this product a try. That has been my mantra. I also try to minimize the loss potential, market it well, and be ready to admit defeat if needed.
The commonality of my experiments is that I always try to understand the result. Pass or Fail, I always try to understand why that happened. What clicked or did not. That is where the customer feedback comes in and where my experience comes from.

So, yes. Customer feedback and input are important, but mostly in instances where the prospective customer can relate to the product or service. When a totally new concept or invention is happening, that may not be the case. End users, after all, don’t always know what they want.

Well, those were my thoughts and experiences…..What do you think?

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

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