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13 Nov 2014

The Scene: Is Research Always Necessary?

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, ‘faster horses.’”

       - Henry Ford

Henry Ford, as you might recall, developed the first affordable automobile. It changed our way of life and is – in my opinion – one of the two greatest inventions ever (the other being the personal computer). 

That quote, though, flies in the face of what many of us do quite often: research.

If Ford did research on what the public wanted back in his time, nobody would have said, “You know, I need a motorized vehicle with a combustion engine to get me from place to place. My old horse isn’t doing the job as fast as I need it to.”

Innovative companies don’t always think about what their customers want; rather, they think about what their customers need

Being reactive to our customers wants stifles innovation. Sure, there are exceptions to that rule, but if companies only acted as sounding boards to the public, advances in their products would be slow.

Now, I’m in no way anti-research. But always using your audience, your customers, you members – whoever – to come up with ideas suggests you don’t have a thoughtful process within your organization. Researching the technology you use, what other companies or organizations within your industry are doing and market research are all some examples of the types research companies should be doing.

But constantly surveying your key audience? It’s OK here and there. Organizations that provide services to the public – libraries, local governments, chambers of commerce, various nonprofits, etc. – should listen to those they serve. But companies that produce products need to be innovative enough to tell their audience what they need. If companies don’t do that, how much confidence would we have in them?

Think about this: the first iPad did almost everything an iPhone does except make phone calls to anyone in the world. Some may argue the iPhone is better simply because it fits in your pocket. But did Apple go out and survey the public to see if there was an appetite for the iPad? Nope. It created the product, marketed it in a way that convinced the public that the product was good and necessary, and we all went out and bought them, myself included. 

Also, years of strong brand loyalty helped.

Steve Jobs was a visionary, and he didn’t need surveys to come up with great products. His confidence in himself and his company was apparent when he said:

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

Amen, brother.

By Kevin Dudley, Spokane MarCom President