Recently, I spoke to a locally respected and experienced business advisor about the process of learning about consumer needs. I said that I thought you can’t simply ask people what they want because most people can’t articulate – at least not in a verbal Q&A context – a clear vision of future products and services. He said, “Hank, I’m gonna have to disagree with you on that.” He went on to describe how he had once complained to his wife about a glaring blind spot in consumer electronics – a spot that was in fact filled years later.
These kinds of consumer anticipations certainly happen, but they tend to fall into a few categories. Sometimes, when we’re deeply engaged in a product area, we produce good ideas – ideas that others are also having and acting upon. Many people engage home electronics regularly and deeply, and so it makes sense that consumers will have all kinds of ideas for improvements and innovations – good ideas that often do make it to market. Of course, if the consumer in question is an aficionado of the product area in question, then they are even more likely to produce great ideas. (However, even in consumer electronics, breakthrough products take more than simply asking people. The iPod, for example, was the result of a long process of research and development by Apple researchers; simply asking people what they wanted from a good MP3 player could never have resulted, in a straight-line fashion, in the wildly popular design of the iPod.)
But most product areas are not like consumer electronics. We engage many products and services sporadically and superficially. Some, we even use grudgingly, hoping to be done with them as soon as possible and with as little engagement as possible (like laundry detergent – see below). And, most consumers don’t develop consciously articulated ideas about problematic products and services. Instead, they either simply put up with the flaws of existing offerings, or they develop workarounds that help them to avoid the problem.
One of my favorite stories about the inability of people to talk about the problem with existing products concerns the genesis of ColorGuard. A few years ago, I met a market researcher from P&G. She told me that P&G spent many years surveying people, asking endless questions about laundry and detergent. Their findings revealed the obvious: when people do laundry, they have cleanliness in mind. So for years, P&G focused their detergent development efforts on cleaning power. Then, P&G started sending teams of researchers into peoples’ homes to observe laundry and other household routines. Through observation, they learned that many people were turning dark clothes inside-out to protect the color from fading. P&G research participants had never told P&G that they were struggling with fading clothes. Afterall, they had developed a workaround to address the problem. Also, since most consumers were not chemical engineers, they probably had trouble conceiving of a possible engineering solution to the problem of fading clothes. However, armed with the observational data, the P&G researchers went back to their chemical engineers, who developed ColorGuard.
I am not suggesting that people are stupid or that they lack good ideas. I am suggesting that people are often not very good at consciously articulating their needs and desires vis a vis future products and services. If there is one thing that the past century of scientific research on human behavior has taught us, it is that most human knowledge is tacit and implicit. (If it weren’t so – that is, if we held all our knowledge at the level of conscious recall – we’d probably keel over and die from the mental stress.) Thus, consumer desires tend to be encoded in behaviors (e.g. workarounds) or buried under a few layers of consciousness. (The Handbook of Marketing Research  by Grover and Vriens has a good discussion of tacit knowledge. Chapter 4 is online: see especially pp. 110-117.) In most cases, you cannot simply ask someone what they want and expect to receive to very insightful answer.
Take a different kind of design challenge: showerheads. Think you know what you want from your showerhead? You may be able to say a thing or two, but most of your interaction with your showerhead is encoded in your body movements. You probably use it without thinking about it too much, though your body movements tell a story about how the showerhead works or fails to work for you. Ten years ago, a team of researchers from QualiData Research, Inc., in New York, tackled the shower product area for Moen. They set up cameras in research participants’ showers to observe their behaviors (I’m not lying about this). They then looked at the video and did follow-up interviews, and concluded that a large proportion of us shower not primarily for cleanliness, but for relaxation. The problem was, peoples’ movements often resembled an awkward dance as they tried to aim and adjust the showerhead for just the right flow, pattern and direction. Existing products were simply not satisfying the powerful, but tacitly felt and enacted, desire for a relaxing shower. QualiData took their findings to Moen, which developed the Revolution Showerhead. Revolution solved some of the problems discovered in the research by, for example, putting the adjustment dial below the showerhead so it’s more accessible to the user, eliminating much of the dancing the researchers recorded.
Business Week awarded the product a Silver Idea Award for Research in 2005, noting: “Within eight weeks of its introduction at Lowe’s, the Revolution Showerhead became the number one selling showerhead (despite it being the most expensive showerhead they sell)…”
Henry Ford is widely quoted as having said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, ‘a faster horse’.” Whether he said it or not, the point is well taken: if you seek visionary breakthroughs or even modestly successful innovations, you should do more than simply ask people.