Don’t ignore a ‘faster horse’

Henry Ford is often quoted* as saying “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted they’d have said a faster horse”. in product management this is often used as an example of customers not knowing what they want, when actually it’s a customer telling us what they need expressed in a way they understand – the current solution. Don’t be too quick to dismiss a ‘faster horse’ because it’s a gold mine of latent needs and acceptable constraints.

Customer needs We know how quick a horse is, so we can establish a baseline. We also know that when it comes to faster or better we need to make a step change to win customers and change behaviour. A little bit faster just won’t cut it, 10% is marginal, so let’s go with 50% faster – so that’s an average speed of about 25mph and top speed of around 45mph.

Next, what is a horse for? At the time it was a mode of transport, and possibly, occasional entertainment. As a means of transport the horse has a number of characteristics, it can easily carry one person, maybe two for shorter distances. It can also carry some luggage or goods. It is pretty adaptable when it comes to terrain but for speed it needs a relatively flat and smooth surface.

Constraints and Limitations ‘Faster horse’ also helps us to define some acceptable constraints and limitations. A horse can travel a certain distance before needing food and water, they need a space to be stabled at either end of the journey, they need regular maintenance, you need to learn how to ride, and they cost a certain amount to buy and have a limited lifespan.

For a new product to be successful in replacing the horse as a means of transport it must do the key things a horse can do, have similar constraints, and be significantly better in some aspects. And, of course, the first Ford Model T fits the bill – it could carry one person with luggage faster and further than a horse, or upto 4 over a long distance, and it was affordable and manageable by the average person.

OK, so this is a retrospective exercise and we can make it fit the Ford Model T quite nicely thank you, but the point is that customers may not know what the solution is but they definitely know what they need. Don’t take customer feedback at face value, you need to look beyond what customers say they want in order understand what customers actually need. There are hidden gems in everything customers tell us.

*There appears to be little evidence that Henry Ford every said this, but we shouldn’t let that get in the way of a good quote.

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