Do People Really Know What They Want?

With the resignation of Steve Jobs comes a plethora of retrospectives and many lists of quotes. This one really stuck out for me.

“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.”
BusinessWeek interview, May 1998

It’s very similar to something Henry Ford allegedly said, “”If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

I’m a digital and social media marketer. I don’t do focus groups. I do a somewhat digital equivalent. I do conversation audits. Rather than take a panel of a few supposedly randomly chosen people, pay them roughly $50 and ask them a bunch of questions about a product, I look at what people are saying online “in the field” so to speak and derive insights that can inform a client strategy or guide the big idea for a digital campaign. In one respect you could say that I’m trying to figure out what people want and in the Jobsian sense that might mean I’m crowding out the ability to come up with a truly creative or innovative campaign.

Except, when I look at conversations online, I’m not trying to figure out what people want. The conversations that people have online reflect an in-the-moment thought (Twitter, Facebook status updates) or an introspective thought (blogs, tumblr). They’re not answers to leading questions, they’re ‘real’ thoughts. I’m looking for patterns. Patterns in random conversations that will inspire a eureka moment, an insight, so named because you cannot see it until you dive in. If done right, it shouldn’t lead to an incremental improvement. Incremental improvements are somewhat obvious. It should lead to a discovery that sparks something innovative.

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