Did Steve Jobs do Market Research?

July 16, 2019
The Trig Team

Let me just start this post by saying that I didn’t personally know Steve Jobs, and therefore simply cannot comment on his character as a person.  Did I love his commencement address to Stanford?  Yes.  Was I an early adopter of the iPod and iPhone?  Yes.  Am I writing this on a Mac?  Yes.  BUT - the phone in my pocket right now is an Android (Google Pixel).  I have a Roku, not Apple TV.  I neither love nor hate Jobs nor Apple.  I take what I like and leave the rest.

Why is this question important?  Because I think the popular answer hurts innovation.  I also think the popular answer may not be accurate.

This, in my opinion, hurtful interpretation of Jobs and market research is not just popular opinion, but also supported by some thought leaders in the field (whether they know it or not, and that includes me, as you’ll see below).  I’ve heard some say, “Jobs famously ignored market research.”  My response to that is, “There's a lot of famous things that aren't true.”

In his book Antifragile, Nicholas Nassim Taleb states the following:
”The strength of the computer entrepreneur Steve Jobs was precisely in distrusting market research and focus groups – those based on asking people what they want – and following his own imagination, his modus was that people don’t know what they want until you provide them with it.”

I’m sorry Nassim, while I do really like Antifragile, I simply disagree with using this sound bite to drive home a point.  That’s right, it’s a sound bite.

Steve Jobs is on record.  His quotes, from his mouth include:

  • “We do no market research.”
  • 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."

Sound bites.

Have you ever been the victim of a sound bite?  In this case, I think maybe innovation is the victim.

I learned this lesson after giving a TEDx talk at Wake Forest University back in 2012.  In front of 2000 people, recorded and published on YouTube; I showed the following quote attributed to Henry Ford:
“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

And with those words projected on the screen behind me, I said, “What I love about this quote … is it exemplifies the fact that our customers don’t know what they want.”

Sound bite!

Over the next days and weeks, I’d receive emails from perfect strangers that were in the audience or saw the video and they would challenge me, wondering if I’m suggesting that market research has no value and asking me if we should just ignore the customer.

During that same presentation, I also said:
“You gotta’ go out there and do your market research.”

Those who were challenging me, never brought up that sound bite.  None the less, I appreciated the feedback.  It opened my eyes.  How could what I said, the words coming from my own mouth, have been so sorely misinterpreted; literally the direct opposite of my intended message???

Luckily, 15 years prior to that TEDx talk, I had taken an English class that taught a philosophical and literary analysis method known as deconstruction.  Derived from work done by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1960s, deconstruction examines language and literature utilizing conceptual opposites.

Recalling the homework assignment from that class; the example I used to demonstrate deconstruction was the song Better Man by the band Pearl Jam.  The sound bite from the song was this:
“She lies and says she's in love with him, can't find a better man”

Is she assuming a horizontal or resting position while thinking about how much she loves her man, there being no man in the world better than him?
Is she telling herself a lie, and settling for this man, because she has yet to find the better man?

Both are valid interpretations of the sound bite from the song … thus illustrating the concept of deconstruction.  I realized that the interpretation of the Henry Ford quote can be taken two ways using this literary philosophy.

Is Ford suggesting we ignore the customers and use our own creative genius to give them what we want them to have?
Is Ford suggesting that customers often speak in terms of solutions, and that we need to walk in their shoes before we can begin to articulate their unmet needs.

My point was indeed the latter.

I think customers know what they want.  They want a faster horse alright.  They probably want one that is affordable and reliable too.  My interpretation of Steve Jobs: He’s not saying don’t do Market Research. I think he’s saying that market research has become impersonal and detached from the user.

Steve Jobs replaced impersonal market research with ethnographic studies

The reality (in my humble opinion) is that Jobs was no genius, but rather an expert in design thinking. Through Jobs’ leadership, Apple curated (not created) detailed ethnographic studies and well devised surveys. What Ford and Jobs are both articulating is the need to get out into the field and talk to the customers in context.

A lesson from author Donald Norman from his book, The Design of Everyday Things … or was it The Psychology of Everyday Things, can be found in the title itself.  Those two titles are for the exact same book.  The only difference is that “Design” and “Psychology” are interchangeable in the titles.  And I do believe that Design and Psychology are related.  I’ll unpack that on another day.

I bring it up here to illustrate an example.  A psychologist, after spending hours on hours with a patient, may know that patient better than they know themselves.  Imagine that same psychologist using lackluster marketing tools and surveys to get to know their patient.  How good do you think they’ll do?

A designer explores the users (does their market research) properly and expertly, in my opinion, when they dig deep into the psychology of the users unmet need, job to be done, or desired outcome.  Using lackluster marketing tools and surveys out of context is not doing Market Research … just like Jobs didn’t do it.

Here’s a few sound bites to wrap up this post:

Sound bite: I don’t eat food.
Meaning: I enjoy a dining experience that includes excellent food, an outstanding environment, and wonderful friends and family to talk to.

Sound bite: I don’t do market research.
Meaning: I immerse myself into the context of the user to explore their unmet needs, jobs to be done, and desired outcomes.

I think maybe, just maybe, this is what Steve Jobs meant too.

The Trig Team

The Trig Team sometimes likes to go stealth. Engage stealth mode.


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