At least once a week it seems, someone quotes Henry Ford as saying: “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse’.” In other words, when it comes to new product development and innovation, leave it to the experts – as long as those experts aren’t market researchers. Well, Mr. Ford, bunkum and horse feathers!
Let’s go back to that earlier time and play a little. In this scenario, you are an aspiring researcher, circa 1885 – a curious young lady eager to understand why people do as they do. You have a gentleman friend who is full of ideas for products that will change the world, but isn’t sure whether his ideas will appeal to people outside of his immediate family. Aware of your bold and curious nature, he asks you to gather together eight young ladies of your acquaintance for a discussion over tea in your drawing room. He will hide behind the velvet curtains to listen. He’s been thinking a lot lately about carriages, specifically one-horse personal carriages, and he’s eager to learn how a carriage of this type could be bettered. He has his own ideas, but would like you to ask these bright young ladies, all of whom are familiar with small carriages, what suggestions they have for improving such a conveyance? Being a religious gentleman, it would never occur to him to ask how to improve the horse – one of God’s perfect creatures.
After everyone is comfortable and relaxed, you begin the discussion by asking what it is your friends dislike about their carriages. Quite soon you have a list:
- Bumpy and uncomfortable over the rough roads
- Dangerous if a wheel comes off
- Difficult to get in and out – those pesky long skirts
- Unreliable if the horse goes lame
- Dangerous if the horse shies or bolts
- Thinking about the horse, he needs feeding and grooming and mucking out, and decent tack that also needs to be paid for and cleaned. Then there are the vet’s bills, not to mention the blacksmith, and the problem of finding a place to stop on a long journey to feed and water him. And you never really know how he’ll react when fresh and skittish. Or whether he will react badly if the oats are too green. Thinking of which, oh my dear, there’s the smell – have you ever sat behind a farting horse?
Quite soon, the discussion is entirely about the horse. Well, you ask, would you want him to go faster? Oh no, they exclaim! There are enough accidents in town already, and faster horses are far more likely to cause the carriage to roll over.
Then you suggest a game. Close your eyes and imagine the perfect journey by road. If you could have your wish and everything were possible, what would be the best carriage in the world for such a journey?
Easy, they say in unison, one without a horse!
And therein lies the tale of how customers first suggested the idea of a horseless carriage, later to be called a car.
(Of course, this is fiction. It took almost another hundred years for automobile makers to ask women what they wanted.)