top of page

Stop asking customers what they want (you'll end up with a faster horse)

You are an expert in your business and customers look to you for innovation. And yet, so many companies ask customers 'what do you want'. Customers don't know! A better question to ask is 'what are you trying to do' and then your business should use its expertise to determine the best way of helping the customer get that job done. So listen to customers, but then be creative, innovative, and customer-focused.

The Apple iPod - an exceptional solution for a 'job to be done'

Isn’t it interesting that two of the leading innovators of the last 100 years both had the same thought – Henry Ford and Steve Jobs. In fact, Jobs quoted Ford famously when he said

“Some people say 'give the customers what they want', but that's not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, 'If I'd ask customers what they wanted, they would've told me a faster horse.' People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” Steve Jobs

Jobs’s quote is often misused to show arrogance – but I don’t believe that’s true. Apple were masters at observing how consumers behaved and how they used products when they had ‘jobs to be done’ – and they designed innovative and intuitive solutions. They didn’t start with an existing product and improve it. They looked at what people were trying to do and gave them a better way of doing it.

Look at portable music and the iPod.

Sony had created an entirely new way to enjoy music (the ‘job to be done’) with the Walkman and then the Discman. But consumers typically owned tens or even hundred’s of albums on vinyl, cassette or CD. And if they wanted to enjoy a mix of music – they had to create their own mix tape or carry multiple albums with them.

In the meantime, Napster and Kazaa were growing in popularity as sharing services for digital (pirated) music. And so Apple saw an opportunity – a portable music device that could allow customers to carry hundreds or thousands of songs in their pocket. And so we have:

  • The job to be done: enjoy listening to music when I’m ‘on the go’

  • The enabler(s): digital music through MP3; smaller hard drives; rechargeable batteries etc.

  • The opportunity: iPod and iTunes

And, through the genius of Jony Ive, the design of the iPod with the click wheel was a winner from day 1. So 'exceptional execution' was critical. The iPod would not have been a success without great design. As we know, it was not the first MP3 player. But its design, combined with iTunes, was a great success.

And this success was not created by asking consumers 'what they wanted’. Or ‘how do we improve the Discman. This success was created by observing a ‘job to be done’ and applying design excellence to build a solution (and negotiating with the music publishers 😊).

So how does this apply to banking?

Think about your bank of credit union…and in particular, your clients. If you’re looking to design new products or improve existing products, you could invite clients to a focus group workshop and ask them for feedback on your products. But in doing so, you will be guaranteed to end up with a variation on what you already have (or a ‘faster horse’). You have inadvertently framed the opportunity in the context of what already exists.

You're looking at the thing (e.g. A Checking Account) and trying to improve it…so you’ll end up with a variation on that same product - a different type of checking account.

However, if you observe what people are trying to do – why did they open the checking account? And what are they trying to use the checking account to do (their ‘job to be done’)? And then you combine your banking (and regulatory compliance) expertise and technology expertise to invent a new way to solve that problem – then you have the opportunity to create something truly revolutionary.

It is thought-processes like this that led to fintechs like Simple to create trademarked solutions or concepts like ‘SAFE-TO-SPEND’. This allows the customer to specify their monthly expenses (loans, leases, subscriptions, bills, etc.), and these are deducted from the current balance of the bank account to show the amount that is ‘safe to spend’, thereby helping the customer ensure they always have enough money to cover their commitments.

So take a leaf from the book of great innovators like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs – and observe what people are trying to do (Get from A to B; Listen to a variety of music; etc.), what job are they trying to get done, and use your immense knowledge to design solutions from there.

30 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page