Don’t Build a Faster Horse

Stone Horse Statues

The following quote, along with its many variants, is usually (but perhaps mistakenly) attributed to Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse. — Henry Ford

Ford Model T
Ford Model T

Regardless of whether Henry Ford ever actually said these words, the principle about innovation is clear: people often don’t know the best solution to their own problems. This is not a criticism, for people’s worldviews are formed by their past experiences, including the spheres of possibilities that they are willing to accept. You cannot fault the driver of a horse and buggy for not envisioning the Model T any more than you can fault the medieval scribe for not envisioning the typewriter or the personal computer.

A similar quote from Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc. (then the Apple Computer Company), has much the same meaning:

It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. — Steve Jobs

Although people can’t often envision the best solution to their own problems, they often do have some less-than-optimal solution in mind, based on the conceptual categories and the past experiences that make up their worldview and the possibilities they can see. From an innovation standpoint, the danger in asking people what they want is that you might devote time and resources to develop a product that provides a non-optimal solution to the problems you are trying to address in creating something new.

Genuine innovation is paradigm-shifting insofar as it disrupts the conceptual categories that make up the present-day reality. In the history of technology, there have been transformational moments that qualify as paradigm-shifting: Gutenberg’s printing press, the steam locomotive, the aforementioned automobile, radio and television communication, the personal computer, mobile devices, and so on. In each case, the problems were well understood (e.g., the problem of copying manuscripts, the problem of moving goods great distances, the problem of rapid communication, and so on), but the optimal solutions to those problems were envisioned only by a very small number of people who were able to look beyond the sphere of possibilities seen by the average person.

Insofar as customer research is used in product design, if the goal is to be genuinely innovative and transformative, it is more important to thoroughly understand the problems people have, which you are trying to solve, than to take people’s word about the solutions to those problems that people think they want. When designing the iPhone, for example, customers might have said that they want an email button to quickly be able to check their email (in the era before touchscreen mobile devices when smartphones had tiny QWERTY keyboards with physical buttons). If the team designing the iPhone had listened to this expressed desire for an email button, they may never have come up with a truly innovative product with no buttons at all!

iPhone in Hand Showing App Icons
Apple iPhone

What does this mean for you as an instructional designer or as a product development manager in educational technology? It means you must be wary of taking the claims of students, teachers, and administrators about what they really want in educational products or educational content at face value. It means you will need to dig deeply below the surface discussion to find out what actual problems students, teachers, and administrators are having. It means you must have a willingness to ignore the noisiness of other people’s proposed solutions to those problems for the sake of putting your head down and finding a truly innovative solution that no one else has thought of, something that people don’t know they need until you create it and show it to them.

Zachary Fruhling is a senior instructional designer at HotChalk Inc. where he is responsible for the design and implementation of graduate-level online course materials. Zachary has over 15 years of experience in higher education, both in the classroom as a university-level philosophy instructor and in educational technology as a digital content author, instructional designer, and creator of interactive online course materials and media for a variety of disciplines.

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Don’t Build a Faster Horse

by Zachary Fruhling
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