Is it a car you need, or a faster horse?

Is it a car you need, or a faster horse?

By August 26, 2014 Thoughts No Comments

One of the most celebrated quotes in user research and product development is generally attributed to Henry Ford:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

I say attributed because a consensus exists among researchers that he didn’t actually say these famous words.

There’s a whole plethora of material about its origins readily available on the internet, but as it doesn’t seem to have actually been printed before 1970, it’s probably fair to lump it in with another increasingly favourite quotation of mine, delivered by Winston Churchill in the spring of 1955:

The problem with internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy.

But anyway, that’s a tangent to explore on a different day.

Regardless of origin, it’s a wonderful insight into the challenges that product designers face on a daily basis, and an observation that gains true gravitas by its association with a pioneer such as Ford.

While many product designers justifiably use this type of thinking as a basis for pursuing new and pioneering technology, I find myself drawn to the warning shot contained within.

For although imagination, vision and engineering are wonderful things, until such times as they produce tangibly better realities, the average man on the street will be happier with any product that offers a simpler, improved life.

Systematic change just isn’t as simple as releasing an amazing product.

Take a leaf through novels set among the early days of the “automobile” – I recommend John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath – and although uptake was furious and benefits were immediately reaped, it paints a picture of how much angst, frustration and disharmony these new creations brought. Terms such as blown gaskets, overheating radiators, worn tyres, and no garages for 40 miles, brought newfound distress to the world, while the arrival of side effects such as break failure and head on collisions, well, they brought something worse.

The nice part of being in this world some hundred years on, is that we can avail of the wonders of car technology without (most of) this pain.

So thank you ancestors.

Thank you also for being the people that forced Ford (and competitors) to evolve the attributed mantra, and in voting with your hard-earned cash, making it clear to that industry that it wasn’t cars we wanted – it was in fact better cars.  Indeed, once that started happening, the world stopped yearning for the calmer, simple days of horseback.

The lessons here can be applied just as readily today to the digital world. Across the planet right now there are tech start-ups forming and folding in rapid succession, often emanating from ideas that could change the world. Some of these are brilliant ideas, and others – appearing perhaps a year or decade too soon – need time to ferment. These are the cars of the future. But many of the best ideas, despite delivering its founders a fat cheque and short vice-presidency at Google, are really just faster horses. For people will always want faster horses, until there’s a better car.

It could be as simple as applying technology to an existing business process, or just copying and improving an application that nearly delivers. That’s all a faster horse is, and if you’ve got a customer base or stakeholders to please, the chances are they’ll want one too.