Crazy Visionaries and Faster Horses…

I am particularly fond of the misattributed (or completely fabricated) Henry Ford quote,

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

It’s spirit is something I identify pretty strongly with…that the market is incapable of thinking beyond the horizon. Buyers and users have a really hard time conceiving of anything that isn’t pretty similar to something they’re already familiar with. Steve Jobs also said something similar (and mostly true),

“…people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

This creates conflict for me internally, because at my heart, I am a human centered designer. I solve problems for people, and I want them to use and enjoy and find value in the things I create for them. Their input (the user) is critically important to the creation of valuable design. So, how do I reconcile this belief that people/the market are incapable of conceiving of radically high-value solutions to their own problems?

Easy. I don’t.

There’s a world of difference between solving a problem in a way that users can’t have seen coming, and spending your time, money and resources solving a problem that doesn’t exist, or solving it in a way that won’t be accepted. There’s also a world of difference between studying a user and their needs, and simply asking them what they want. It is in that difference that these ideas become not just strange bedfellows, but amplify each others effect.

Effective study of a user’s needs and behavior gives you the background to design exactly what they want, even if they don’t know it yet. Studying the user doesn’t need to raise the probability that you’ll create something mundane. But, not studying the user does raise the probability that you’ll create something that doesn’t solve their problem.

What Henry Ford (allegedly) understood about his users is actually born out in that quote. “Faster Horses,” tells him what problem he’s solving. The value he as an innovator brings to the market is that he solved the root problem in a novel way.

Ignoring your user does not make you a Crazy Visionary, it just makes you crazy. Your value as an innovator does not come from the ability to invent completely previously un-thought-of things from whole cloth, it comes from the ability to solve real problems for real people in meaningful ways.

Who wants crazy visionaries anyway? I would much prefer cannily sane ones. 😉