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You know that innovation quote that’s often attributed to Henry Ford? It goes something like this: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” I’ve seen it used most frequently to in one way or another justify laziness in the product design process.

OK, so let’s say Henry Ford really did say this, but let’s investigate deeper into the whys behind it (as I’ve said before, why is a very important question to ask).

If you went back in time, pre-automobile, you may have found underneath the surface of this quote’s presumption that what people really wanted was a faster, more efficient mode of autonomous transportation to get from point A to point B. You may have found they simply wanted to go to work, school, and entertainment venues more efficiently.

Again, let’s ask “why?” Perhaps cities were growing beyond the manageable limits of practical horse-drawn transportation. Perhaps industry demanded something that could carry workers to the outskirts of then-defined cities as zoning separated factories from residences. Perhaps folks were demanding a better solution for overland travel as the U.S. population was moving westward.

The fact of the matter is, Ford likely had a foundational understanding of a problem set from which to innovate.

It would be extremely dangerous to follow Ford’s quote headlong into costly ivory tower innovation. Instead, let’s draw from an underlying lesson that we can derive from this quote and from every waterfall-loving product manager who is frustrated with customer’s opinions: We need to ask the right questions!

The issue with asking the customer is we often craft lazy questions for our uncontrolled research. Questions like “Do you like this new feature?”, “Which of these three designs do you like better?”, or “Do you prefer hamburger menus or combination menus?” Let’s move beyond these questions into empathetically seeking to understand the people we’re serving and the obstacles they face in their day-to-day lives.

From there, let’s test the assumptions we’ve made in the solution space. This starts with the understanding that we’re not trying to validate whether or not people like a product. We’re validating or disproving thought-out hypotheses like “Working parents currently spend x amount of time they’d rather invest in other activities doing y because z process is terribly inefficient.” and “IT departments would be willing to spend $a to solve their problem with b.”

We absolutely do need to seek out input from the humans we’re designing for on the problems they’re facing and test our assumptions about potential solutions in well-crafted interviews, surveys, usability tests, and other research methods. Ultimately, the problem isn’t in asking customers, it’s in what and how we’re asking them.

Let’s start off the new year by going to the people we’re innovating for!