A Faster Horse?

Voice of the Customer

A Faster Horse?

By Elaine Cascio, Vice President  |  November 12, 2013

How often have you heard the old chestnut that if Henry Ford asked a focus group what they would like, they’d tell him a faster horse? Last month, this column discussed customer research – types of research, benefits and where they can be valuable when designing customer contact channels, strategies and applications. Some of the feedback on the article was that customer research often stifles innovation. 

To look to more recent examples, Steve Jobs (News - Alert) believed that people really don’t know what they want and has delivered some of history’s most groundbreaking products. The Herman Miller Aeron chair I’m sitting on while typing this article received lukewarm reception from focus groups, with many asking what the upholstery would look like.

These companies believe in innovating first and researching later (one of the documents released as part of the Apple (News - Alert) Samsung patent suit was a research and analysis study on why people purchased an iPhone over an Android device). It’s a model that’s been highly successful for them. 

What this says to me is that you can’t do away with customer research entirely. But you should use it wisely and appropriately. 

For example, if you want to understand user behavior, ethnographic research provides valuable data that can spark, rather than stifle, innovation. Ethnography is a method that anthropologists use to observe the knowledge, belief systems and other elements that help define a culture. They directly observe people in their natural habitats. With this methodology, we understand how consumers use products or services in their day-to-day lives how often, where, under what circumstances, compared to other products. It not only helps to evaluate how products or services can be improved, it identifies potential new products or services and trends and patterns.

Detractors of focus groups claim that customers don’t know or can’t articulate what they want, that self-reporting is not as valuable as behavioral data, or that consumers don’t have any idea what is really possible. Ethnographic research eliminates users’ perceptions and self-reporting and goes right to the source to understand how people live. Companies like Intel (News - Alert) have teams of anthropologists and ethnographers dedicated to this type of research to identify trends and future strategies.

Focus groups come under fire often. Critics say that asking participants what they want yields little in terms of innovation. How do you get beyond this challenge? One way is to have samples for participants to react to – a prototype of a VUI or a web page, for example. Another way is to use focus groups to get an understanding of your customers’ mental maps – give them cards to sort to aid in design, for example. When doing IVR or web design, I often give participants sticky notes with categories on them along with some blank stickies. They group them in ways that make sense to them – and will add categories and functionality too.

Finally, releasing a new product without usability testing can miss excellent opportunities to gain deeper understanding of likely customer acceptance and ideas for further improvements. Like ethnographic research, usability testing lets us observe customers actually using a product. Is the language understandable? Is the sequence of events intuitive? How well do they perform in efficiency, accuracy and recall? What is their emotional response?

One of the keys to successful design is to provide customers something to react to or use. By observing them, we can imagine possibilities that help us all be more innovative. In a discussion about customer research, a colleague pointed out that someone other than Henry Ford may have been an innovator if he or she focused on the request for “faster” and not “horse.” Understand and use customer research wisely to enhance, not impede, innovation.


Elaine Cascio is a vice president at consulting firm Vanguard Communications Corp. (www.vanguard.net).

Elaine Cascio is a vice president at Vanguard Communications Corp. (www.vanguard.net), a consulting firm specializing in customer experience, self service, contact center processes, operations and technology.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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