Uh huh, the customer would ask for a faster horse

If you’ve ever done any sort of customer research in order to inform a user or customer experience design, or maybe to make a product development decision, I am sure you would have heard some bright spark argue against the voice of the customer and quote some bastardisation of the Henry Ford quote:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses

It happened to me the other day, as usual it was kinda laughed off and the meeting continued, but there is always a little whiff of doubt that remains, should we be asking the customer about this stuff?

The Henry Ford quote feels right, lots of evidence of products that no-one ever asked for being wildly adopted that now we have them we can’t live without them – that’s inspired innovation – and that’s not crowd sourced. We wouldn’t be quoting Henry Ford today if his breed of nag was slightly faster than the rest of them.

However innovation can only be accepted by the mainstream in acceptable bite sized chunks, depending on the societies appetite for change. Go beyond that, go nuts with your blue sky whiteboard thinking and you’ll fall flat as you reach beyond the threshold of what your audience, your organisation or customer will accept – to find that edge is where genius lies.

Asking the customer what they think is a good idea.

So, I started thinking about the quote.

For starters, did Henry Ford do any actual research to inform his opinion? Would the people of the time really asked for a faster horse, especially as the automobile had been invented?

Perhaps if he done some customer research he might have got a different result than his hypothesis; maybe people would have said “one of those new fangled automobiles, only cheaper please.. oh and in black, if you don’t mind”.

But, imagine if his exhaustive, quantitive customer research had revealed a customer segment that really did say they want faster horses.

Perhaps the important thing, would have been how you interpret that data.

The mental model for transportation for most consumers of the time is the horse – it is ubiquitous. So, we could interpret this fictional survey as the audience asking for a faster form of ubiquitous transportation.

The ubiquity of the horse at the time is also due to it’s price point, it’s affordable by many. Maybe we can therefore interpret the data to mean that the consumer would like a faster form of affordable transportation.

So maybe, old Henry was just not studying the data – and the quote should be:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster form of affordable transportation


A close chum of mine read this post and pointed me at this, a detailed look at the provenance of the saying, so often attributed to Henry Ford. 

According t0 the Quote Investigator article (which is a fascinating read) the quote is an amalgam of a thoughts and theories that evolved over the early 20th century and the first use of the quote seems to be in Marketing Week in 2001, 54 years after his death. To be fair to those that quote it, as the article shares, even his great grandson attributed it to him (and lots of other bright folks did too). 

I think my argument still holds – the quote is used to support the point of view, so regardless of whether Henry Ford really said it, people will continue to express cynicism of the voice of the customer and believe its supported by one of the greatest American industrialists.

But, it turns out that after all this unpicking of the argument, we could simply say “no, he didn’t say that”.

Thanks Shaun Conn!

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