Nov 112008

In his article Faster Horses in the Age of Co-creation, JP Rangaswami writes, “We need to focus on making things that the customer wants to buy, rather than trying to get customers to pay for things they neither want nor need.”  He writes this in rebuttal to the famous, perhaps apocryphal, quote of Henry Ford:

If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said ‘faster horses’.

Mr Rangaswami even goes on to say that if the customer wants ‘faster horses’ you give them faster horses in a variety of types.

The trouble with this sort of Customer Supreme attitude is that it is a stifle on innovation.  With this type of attitude we would never have revolutionary products.  Not the car.  Not the home computer. Not the iPod.

Let’s take a look at the iPod as an example.  No one would have every said “I want a disk drive I can carry with me that will hold all my music and let me play it while I’m away from home,” because the response would simply be, “You mean a walkman?”  “No no, not a walkman.  I need something that can hold all my music.” “Well, that’s silly.  who needs all their music?”

Simply put, in terms of what the customer wanted, or thought they wanted, the ipod didn’t fit in. There was no market for portable digital players until that market was created. And outside of a very small number of geeks, that market was created by the iPod which gave customers something they wanted in a package they wanted to use, even though they didn’t know they wanted it.

Certainly when a customer comes to you and says, “I want faster horses” you don’t laugh at them and say, “Sorry, horses are as fast as they can get.” Instead, you need to find out what the customer really wants.  “Faster Horses” might mean “Faster travel” and “less time spent traveling” or “get things delivered faster” or simply “get things done faster”. Some of the solutions to the faster horses problem existed long before Henry Ford.  Trains where one of the first industrial solutions to the faster horses problem.  Sailing ships are one of the oldest solutions to that same problem (and to the ‘horses that swim for miles’ problem).

The arrogance of Ford, and he was arrogant to his boots, was that he thought that he and he alone, had seen the solution to the faster horses problem.  And he thought the consumer was an idiot.  He was, of course, wrong on both counts.

We still see the faster horses problem all the time, in different guises.  What is FedEX but another solution to the faster horses problem? Even something as irrelevant seeming as an ATM machine is a faster horses solution, though in this case the ‘horse’ is the line at the teller’s window in your bank.

Let’s look at elevators.  We have a hypothetical high rise were people complain that the elevators are ‘too slow.’  The building managers are confused, as their elevators are quite fast.  One gets the idea to put a mirror on the wall near the elevators and the complaints drop off.  This is an old saw told as an example of how vain people are, but that’s not it at all.  The complaints abut the elevators were not “They’re too slow” (what the customer said) but “I’m bored” (what the customer was really thinking, but didn’t even know). The mirror is a distraction, allowing you to see yourself, and to observe those around you. It gives you something to look at for a minute or two while you wait.  The speed of the elevator didn’t change, but the ‘slow elevator’ problem was solved.

Or, how about something near and dear to our hearts as children of the computer age?  Processor speeds.  For a couple of decades the speed of processors climbed up and up and up.  My current machine is 2 THOUSAND times faster than my first computer.  And my current machine has 4 cores running, each 2000 times faster than that first machine so one could argue it’s 8000 times faster.  It’s not, but still.

Now, as recently as 10 years ago people were predicting 5GHz and 10GHz processors.  Heck, we were supposed to have 5GHz processor by 2005.  The consumers wanted faster processors.  More Hz. What became obvious was that super high-speed processors were too hard to cool, and that making better and smarter processors that worked together was a better solution than using liquid hydrogen to cool your computer.

Again, this is a faster horses problem.  Responding to faster horses by trying to give customers more choice in their horses is a foolish, and loosing, path. Finding out why the customer wants a faster horse is the real role, and is why saying that the customer doesn’t know what she wants is often correct.

I’m on a lot of mailing lists, and we run into this problem quite frequently; a person will join the list and ask a question about why a very long and convoluted procedure they are using is not working.  The first question, hopefully, is “What is it you are trying to do.”  People who answer by explaining their procedure are customers who don’t really know what they want.  And we usually have to ask again, maybe several times, “No, what is it you are trying to do? What is the purpose of this procedure?”

Someone might be trying to create a unique hash of all their incoming mail messages so they can mark duplicate messages and they are examining each message and creating an md5 hash and saving it off to a mysql database and then comparing that against all new messages and discarding off old MD5 hashes. <take a breath here> Once I know what they really want (to discard/mark duplicate messages) I can offer a solution (cache the Message-ID header) that probably avoids all the problems they had. They had a solution to a problem and they thought they wanted ‘faster md5 hash’ or ‘faster sql lookups for comparison’ but what they really wanted was ‘fast and easy discarding of dupes’.

I’m trying to solve their faster horses problem by listening to what they really need.  They need to get from New York to Boston in less than a day.  OK, well, we can build a train between those cities to solve that problem.  Then we can not only move people between the cities, but ship clam chowder down to the Bronx and kosher hot dogs to Fenway Park. Well, no, I need to be able to get around the city faster, but I’m not sure where at any given time.  OK, we’ll build a mass-transit system with buses and trolleys and subways. OK, well, now that I’ve gotten used to all this speed, I spend two hours on a train to go 80 miles, and then I spend two hours on a cart/wagon/horse to go 8 miles. I’m frustrated by the speed I lose in those two hours.

Ah… well, there we come to the crux of the faster horses problem as Ford saw it.  And he came up with a way to solve the early 20th century’s ‘last mile’ problem. But he got there, even if he didn’t consciously realize it, by listening to what people said they wanted and then being able to figure out what it was they really wanted, but didn’t know they wanted.

The customer doesn’t know what she wants?  True, but only to a point.  It might be more accurate to say, “The customer is often unable to articulate exactly what she wants, but what the customer does say is a clue to what she really needs” but that has a big word in it and introduces a bit of a fuzzy , wobbly, almost philosophic sort of thinking, so it’s not that catchy and people in marketing, to whom the phrase is directed, need catchy.

You don’t solve the faster horses problem by bio-engineering faster horses, you solve it by finding out what the real need or want is and filling it.

 Posted by at 09:39

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