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Faster Horse and Requirement Elicitation

Posted on October 11, 2022 — 7 Minutes Read

Some people say give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d ask customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse.’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

— Steve Jobs

Alleged to have said the above is Steve Jobs, in an interview with Inc. Magazine back in 1989. While the transcript does not seem to reflect such message, the innovative genius of Steve and the success of Apple under his rule, reinforced by the countless quotes since the saying emerged, have constructed a truth out of it. The core premise is of course that the customer does not always know what they want, which has been taken by those who oppose user research as a silver bullet to discredit the value of eliciting product requirements from users. This is echoed by what Ben Horowitz, entrepreneur and venture capitalist, described as the innovator’s job in a more recent light. In his part memoir and part lessons for startup, The Hard Thing about Hard Things, Ben recounted a moment from his time at Opsware, during which, when facing existential threat from BladeLogic, they walked away from requirements voiced by the existing customers, and instead went with, in the boldest possible fashion, features that the Product organisation believed would help them prevail. In both counts, this product strategy worked, and considering that Ben has since then found a16z, tasked with nurturing startups that count Facebook, DigitalOcean, and Slack among the others, one could derive that it had worked numerous other times as well. Given these triumphs, some may be inclined to submit that user research has no part to play in product development, an experienced Product Manager would know however that the problem lies with instead the misuse of user research, and the misinterpretation of its findings. It is never the purpose of user or market research to dictate product development; its purpose is instead to inform and guide product development by helping to unveil the needs and pains of the customer. In order to serve this purpose, the questions in a user research must be thoroughly designed in a way that allows for such.

Foundational to a question is language, which was once thought, by no other than one of the most influential ancient Greek philosophers, Aristotle, as an instrument for expressing thoughts. More recent philosophical investigations, especially those by Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, revealed nonetheless that language is intrinsically and much more peculiarity related to thought. While the details of which is way beyond the scope of the present discussion, it is in this renewed understanding that one may, to a certain degree, perceive language as thought. This is one of the human eccentricities and is the reason behind what the cognitive scientist or behaviour economist calls, the framing effect, that captures the influence the language of a question has on the respond. A clear example of this, although distilled of the depth and subtleties that are the most evil of all, is one given by the British philosopher, A. C. Grayling, in the 2016 Darwin College Lecture Series, of the University of Cambridge. In which, when introducing the thought of Wittgenstein, and to provoke thinking along this line, he asked the classic loaded question of ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’. It is evident that the question is poorly designed, and is loaded with an unjustified premise that philosophy throughout its history is determined to unveil. The answer, if one is able to be elicited from a question like this at all, is of no use in any case whatsoever.

In light of the detrimental effect of the language of a question has on thinking, and to avoid in essence loading an answer into a question, Teresa Torres, an acclaimed consultant and product coach, in her book on agile product development, Continuous Discovery Habits, distinguishes what is called research question from interview question. The former captures the question to be understood by the research and would most often be about the needs, pains and desires matter most to the user, whereas the later refers to the question to be asked, that in light of the well-studied human incapability of accurately recalling facts without context, should be directly about a past behaviour of the user instead of a projected behaviour in an hypothetical scenario. Case in point, most I believe would respond positively if asked about risking oneself to save a child in imminent danger, yet few I would argue could recall a time in the past when one has performed a heroic act to such degree. By focusing a user research on the past and situated behaviours of the users, one could ensure that the answers are safeguarded from the impact of the language used and the defects of the projective mind.

From these past and situated behaviours of the targeted users, proper interpretation and logical deduction could help elicit the needs, pains and desires, together with the willingness to pay to address these openings. Even facing a poorly constructed question like the one above, that asks what a customer would want, a silly answer such as that of a faster horse would still provide ground for further interpretation and deduction given the context and situatedness. A horse back at the time, in the context of the question, was considered as a mere instrument for transportation. It is of no constitutive or determinative character of the desired destination, for other mediums of travel is equally attainable of the same goal. Means of this type, that was first identified more than two thousands years ago by Aristotle, and further explicated in the exegesis by the 20th-century New Zealand classical scholar, Leonard Hugh Graham Greenwood, is of no value in and of itself, and is logically independent from the ends where the value is derived. Properly importing this model for extrication will illustrate that the horse in this context is an interchangeable means for travel, whereas the end where a user derives value from, when submitting a silly answer such as that of a faster horse, is to arrive at the desired destination in a more timely fashion. Grasping this user value will allow product development to venture into what is permitted by the technology of late, be it a motor vehicle, air travel or teleportation.

One peculiarity that Wittgenstein identified of the relationship between language and thought is that the latter is always limited by the arsenal and boundary of the former. For the lack of a language that captures the notion of an inorganic machinery, that consumes a non-decaying chemical component for reliable, efficient and effective means of transportation that is known today as a motor vehicle, a faster horse is the only language available for expressing that desire. Reading thoroughly along the line in this, and likely every other instance, is essential to reading between the line, in order to penetrate what is said into what is not, which is where user requirements may be elicited.