Henry Ford purportedly quipped that if he had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said, “a faster horse.” It’s a well-trod line, one that’s guaranteed to receive nods and chuckles in any business meeting. We can all relate. After all, nothing’s really changed since Ford’s time. Customers today still can’t tell us exactly what they want or imagine products and services that don’t currently exist. No one in 2009, for example, was screaming for a computer that was smaller than a laptop and bigger than a phone — and yet the iPad has become one of the most successful consumer devices on the planet, spawning dozens of copycats.
But here’s the problem: Ford’s quote is a cop out. It bolsters our self-serving belief that we know what’s best for our customers. We hide behind Ford’s lesson, using it to justify our decision to not ask customers what they really want or need. Perhaps this approach worked in the early 1900s. But today, in the age of the customer, the balance of power has shifted from companies to consumers — and companies can no longer afford to make business decisions based on what they think they know about their customers.
One of the most effective ways to make sure you’re delivering products, services, and experiences that meet your customers’ needs is to actually bring them into your design process. I know this can sound like a shocking suggestion, so let me say it again. You should ask your customers to work with you on developing potential solutions to their biggest pain points. Designers call this co-creation.
I’ll admit it. Most people aren’t great at envisioning the future. (That’s why visionaries like Steve Jobs stand out.) But when they’re face-to-face with your design team, customers can provide valuable input, including firsthand accounts of what they need and want, the seeds of ideas for others to build upon, and feedback that can be incorporated into prototypes in real time. If Ford had taken the time to ask his customers what they wanted, in addition to “faster horses,” they probably would have told him they wanted to sit in more comfortable saddles, stay dry while traveling in rainstorms, and carry multiple suitcases with them. Their ideas, plus rapid iterations of prototyping and customer testing, might have gotten Ford to his Model T (or, perhaps, something better) even sooner.
So why don’t more companies practice co-creation? Many reject the idea outright because they fear they’re going to wind up with their own version of “The Homer,” the car that Homer Simpson designed when he got a job at his half-brother’s car company. With two glass domes, shag carpeting, and three horns that play the song “La Cucaracha,” this monstrosity of a vehicle looked like a cross between a spaceship and a Bentley. Not surprisingly, the car flopped, and the cartoon automaker went down with it.
But co-creation doesn’t mean kowtowing to every last customer wish and demand. If that was the case, we’d call it customer creation instead. Co-creation, when done well, will help you find solutions that meet you customers’ needs while also supporting your business objectives.
In our new book, Outside In, my coauthor Harley Manning and I describe how Fidelity Charitable used co-creation to explore ways to improve the mobile and online donor experience. In a single-day workshop, the company’s employees got just one hour to create pen-and-paper prototypes for ideas that they thought would fill a particular donor need. Charitable donors then joined the group for a mocked-up fundraising cocktail party (complete with virgin cocktails) that enabled them to test out the prototypes in a realistic setting. Through this process, the Fidelity Charitable team got multiple rounds of feedback that catalyzed it into action and focused the work on the most valuable solutions.