No One Really Knows What They Want Anyway

March 21, 2016

For the past two and a half years, I’ve been working on a project that I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about. I haven’t brought it up in my blogs nor has it been featured on my website. I’ve been working with E.ON to build and iterate a digital product for their biggest business customers. This product allows these customers to easily track their heating and electricity usage online. While this may seem like peanuts to all of us, it can add up to *a lot* of money for larger corporations. Ultimately, the goal is for them to consume less and less electricity resulting in a healthier world.

Earlier this year, they asked me for my thoughts on how to evolve and improve their product for 2016. Keep in mind, they’ve already adapted to a very agile and lean design/development process – something that’s VERY rare in Fortune 500 corporations. I teamed up with Andreas, a business analyst with E.ON, to discuss what new features we could introduce that increase value for the customer. During our conversations, it slowly dawned on me that we didn’t have that much insight on how our customers actually use the product. We may have Google Analytics tracking how the customer is currently using the product, but it tells us nothing of what they want to be there.

Talk to your users

One of our recommendations was to include customers in the discussion about improvement. If we truly want to understand what the customer needs, we have to have a deeper understanding of how our product can ease their current jobs and make more informed decisions.

Sounds pretty easy, right? All it takes is talking to our customers and listening to what they want.


It’s never that easy. Our customers simply aren’t product designers that know how to take technical limitations into consideration. Marissa Mayer discovered this when running a test that showed more results on a Google search – a user requested feature. Their traffic and revenue suffered due to the increased time it took for these searches to complete. The users didn’t understand the technical consequences of their request and their experience suffered for it.

Those who have found success in their industries have long recognized that some customer’s requests can actually be harmful to their product because they don’t yet know how the product will serve them. Consider these quotes from leaders who knew when to draw the line:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
– Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company

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

“Why do we want to ask what our audience thinks? We don’t care what they think.

How can people tell you what they want if they haven’t seen it before? If we ask them what they want, we’ll end up doing Swan Lake every year!”
– Mario D’Amico, Cirque de Soleil

While these quotes may sound harsh at first, you have to consider that people are creatures of habit. We have patterns about how, what, and when we do anything. As an example, the best burgers in Malmö are at Casual Street Food. Every month they come up with a new custom burger that I’m pretty sure is awesome. However, I wouldn’t know because every time I’m there I order their standard double cheese burger. Similarly, when I launch Spotify in the morning, I usually play the same playlist as the day before out of habit. (Well, except for Monday morning when I opt for the individually curated Discover Weekly playlist)

These behavior patterns are why listening to customers isn’t as easy it might sound. To be more specific, it is very difficult to find out what they actually want. Instead, we find it easier to ask them what tasks they want to perform or how something makes them feel. We need to use collected data (traffic, usage, interviews) as a recommendation rather than a rule.

Ask the right questions, get the useful answers

“If the directors are smart, they’ll approve the idea of surveying customers. We use data to brief the members of our creative team, to help them understand who’s applauding when the curtain goes down.

We don’t tell them to use a red dress or a blue dress or [what to do] in a certain scene, but we do educate them. Then we get out of their way so that they can create.”
– Mario d’Amico

Information collected from our customers (audience) can influence the next iteration of the product. Were Steve Jobs and Henry Ford’s more harsh assessment right or wrong? Or are you more on d’Amico’s side? You could say that all of these quotes are correct, but only if your company offers truly innovative and creative products. (This can require some brutal and honest soul searching!)

Honestly, customers CAN offer valuable insights for business. It’s worth considering that it’s the business that is at fault when the feedback is generic and carries limited utility. Learn how to effectively, and honestly, communicate with your customers and you may just gain the confidence to make the next step to improve your business.

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