Who Knows Better? You Or Your Customers

Common advice when starting a business is to uncover a segment of a market and determine what customers want or what problems they’re having and then give it to them. The customer is always right after all. Is this really the best advice?

Might we be better off following our own instincts about what customers buy? Should we listen to the market or listen to ourselves? Who really knows better what your customers want? You or them?


Apple Follows its Instincts

This past weekend I watched Bloomberg Game Changers: Steve Jobs, which presents a short biography of the Apple CEO through interviews with friends, former colleagues, and business associates. One thing that stood out in the 48 minute video is that Steve Jobs didn’t listen to the market, or much of anyone else for that matter. He listened to himself.

Apple as a company follows its instincts. They’re less interested in giving the market what it wants as they are in giving the market what it doesn’t yet know it wants. Apple aims to create innovate products that didn’t previously exist (iPad) or take existing products and redefine them in a way that makes them completely new (iPod, iPhone).

Had Apple listened to the market we would have seen them release a netbook back in April. It likely would have been the netbook of choice for Apple fans and little else. Instead they listened to themselves and gave us the iPad, which may or may not be killing the netbook market depending on who you believe. They also have companies across the spectrum looking to jump into the tablet market.

That’s not to say Apple never listens to its customers, but ultimately they’ll choose their own instincts over what their customers tell them. So far it seems to be working for them.

You may or may not like Apple products. That’s not the point. What’s important is that Apple has mainly followed their instincts instead of their customers wishes and yet they probably have the most loyal customers of any company on the planet.

They’ve created extreme loyalty in their brand in large part by ignoring what their customers tell them they want.


Henry Ford Didn’t Build a Faster Horse

If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse
Henry Ford

You’ve probably heard this Henry Ford quote before. Like Apple he followed his instincts and instead of trying to build a faster horse, something that was clearly impossible, he built an automobile. His customers couldn’t have told them they wanted a car, because they had probably never seen one even though automobiles already existed at the time.

In 1896 when Ford built the original Ford Quadricyle it’s safe to say most people had no idea what a car was or that they might actually want one. They wanted faster horses. Ford was certainly not the only company working to bring the automobile to the public, but again he’s an example of someone following his instincts instead of the market. Or was he?


Is it Instinct or Deeper Understanding?

If we think about Henry Ford’s customers it’s true they might have said they wanted a faster horse, but is that really what they wanted? What they really wanted was faster personal transportation. At the time though, personal transportation was the horse. Ford’s customers would have framed their wants as a faster horse, because that was their context for personal transportation.

What they wanted and what Ford, among others, understood was that what they really wanted was faster transportation. He gave them what they wanted, even though it wasn’t something they could verbalize.

What we should be seeking is a deeper understanding of what our customers want. They can only tells us what they want within their existing frame of reference. Sometimes that’s fine. Often it’s not. Often we should ignore what they tell us and instead try to understand the underlying root of their request.

A year ago did people want a better netbook or did they want a mobile device capable of accessing the Internet and handling a common subset of daily computing tasks? Apple’s experience with the iPhone told them customers wanted the iPad and not the iNetBook. Sales reports since the iPad’s launch would suggest Apple was right.

The instinct is in trusting that you have gained that deeper insight into your customers wants and needs, despite their inability to express those needs and wants outside their existing frame. The instinct is a belief that your customers will see the new frame once they’ve had a chance to use your product.


Should You Aim For the Middle or the Edges?

A few months ago my friend Adam Singer posted, Chris Brogan Nails A Universal Truth. Adam’s post picks up on something Chris said about banal/common being popular and brilliant/offbeat living in obscurity. To quote Adam:

If you play to the middle you’re likely to be more popular than doing something which challenges people and pushes them outside their comfort zone. The truth is, most don’t wish to be pushed outside their comfort zone. They want what is familiar and predictable.

That is a universal truth. A quick study of history shows that many of the brilliant people who truly changed the world were ridiculed initially for their ideas. It’s not easy to change the worldview of people or get them to step away from what’s comfortable.

Doesn’t this seem to be contradicting what I’ve been saying through most of this post? If the familiar and predictable are more popular shouldn’t Apple have built a netbook? Shouldn’t Ford have worked harder to breed faster horses?

I don’t think so. Two different things are at play here. Within a frame of reference the common, the familiar, what people say they want, is popular. However once the frame of reference changes it’s a new common, a new familiar, that becomes popular.

Jazz, the ultimate in hi fi

Think about popular music in the 40s and the 50s. At the time jazz, particularly big band jazz, was the popular music of the day. If you wanted to be a famous musician in 1941 you learned jazz and formed a large band. That was the common and the familiar and consequently the popular.

Then something changed. Jazz itself began to change, though what really changed the frame of reference was rock ‘n’ roll. By the late 50’s if you wanted to be a popular musician, you learned to play rock ‘n’ roll and you formed a much smaller band.

Elvis Presley

The common and familiar lead to popularity, while the brilliant and offbeat toil in obscurity, only until such a time as the brilliant and obscure catches on and becomes the new common.

The brilliant and obscure reaches for the edges. Creativity lives at the edges. Not all edges will become popular and common, but those that do lead to wild success for those that took us there. Ford built a successful company reaching for the edges in personal transportation and Apple has built a successful company reaching for the edges in mobile computing.

Playing to the middle will always work, but you have to be prepared to adapt to a new middle. A year ago you could have built a mediocre netbook and done well. Today you’d have no chance. The paradigm has changed. A new frame exists. A few years from now you’ll be able to do well with a mediocre tablet.

You’ll do even better understanding your customers at a deeper level and giving them something they don’t yet realize they want.

Yes, you should listen to your market, but you should be listening at the edges. You should be listening for the subtext of what they’re saying. You should also be following your instincts and trusting yourself enough to feel confident that you have heard that subtext and can turn it into the main text of the next dialog.

Guarding the Edge


The market knows what it wants, but often it can’t articulate those wants. The market can only express what it wants based on what it knows. It’s up to you to see past that frame of reference and get to the underlying wants and needs of your customers.

It will always be safe and popular to aim for the middle. It’s where most people are. The edges approach the unknown. They approach possible danger. They also approach the possibility of a better way. There’s more risk at the edges, but also the possibility of discovering or creating something great.

Ford gave his customers faster transportation. Apple is giving its customers better mobile computing. Both had to see past their customers words and look deep into their desires.

Is this following your instinct or is it following your market? It’s really both. It’s having the instinct to know when and where you have to look deeper and give your customers not what they say they want, but something they don’t yet know that they want.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.


  1. This just makes me think of Tesla. He built some amazing things that were so far outside the edges that people were scared. Only recently have scientists even begun to understand what Tesla was doing over a century ago.

    • Tesla would be a good example. I was thinking more of Copernicus and Galileo, but same principle. In truth most anyone who’s ever challenged the status quo has been criticized for his or her ideas.

  2. The title is “Who Knows Better? You Or Your Customers” but you offered more food for thought here, for sure. Thank you, it’s a really interesting post!
    Regarding the topic I think it’s always quite better to follow the instinct but it doesn’t mean not to follow the market. In my opinion to be instinctive is a way of doing business, of not playing to the middle but it concerns the seller sphere, not the market one. To be instinctive doesn’t concern to realize something you, alone, think is new and special.
    If you want to sell you MUST understand what market wants and needs, imperatively. You have to follow the market, obviously even considering which are unspoken desires and needs.
    In conclusion you should understand what the market needs in the unconscious and then you should be instinctive and innovative in proposing goods.

    • Thanks benedetta. I like following my instincts too, but I agree you still have to listen to the market. I think of it as learning everything you can from and about the market and use that information when making decisions.

      However I don’t think you want to listen to exactly what they say, because they’re going to speak within the context they know.

      Understand the market yes, but take what they say exactly no.

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