Don't Listen to Henry Ford! Ask the Users, and Ask Them a Lot

Photo of Jinder Kang

Jinder Kang

Updated Mar 24, 2023 • 13 min read
Team members discussing important topics

User research is not an unnecessary expense, and don’t even try to convince me with that worn out Henry Ford “quote”.

Story co-authored by Ewelina Szczepaniak-Wenting.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – that’s what lots of people use to justify not doing user research.

Well, for one thing, there’s no evidence that Henry Ford actually said it. And even if he did, so what? The car he built was still, in essence, a faster horse. Not because it had hooves and a majestic tail, but because it solved the need of its users – getting from point A to point B quicker.

It’s time to forget that quote because now more than ever, in this volatile and uncertain market, user research needs to become a basic function of any business that wants to thrive.

Unfortunately, user research is a misunderstood process. Let’s clear up the misunderstandings, see how proper user research is done, and explore some common mistakes that discourage people from investing in it.

Treat product-market fit as a continuous process

Product-market fit is hugely important, but it isn’t complete once you reach initial traction. It’s a continuous process of adjusting your solution to the needs of the market, not a one-off.

Diagram showing user research value across product lifecycle

Consumer behaviors, wants, and desires keep evolving. Not only do you have to keep a close eye on your users, but you’ve also got to keep tabs on your competitors and adjust your plans based on what they’re doing.

Throughout the life cycle of your product, you’ve got to keep looking for new points of differentiation. The companies that do it best are those that have great feedback loops, organized and maintained by research experts.

In general, however, companies will have an ad-hoc feedback process that was set up by the CEO, sales, marketing, or product managers. Such a process is inadequate and it leaves the company very much open to risk.

If you want user research to contribute to product-market fit, you need to update your mindset first and then make sure to apply proper principles.

User research and mindset

You can build faster without user research, but it increases the risk of building the wrong thing

Diagram showing how to reduce costs with early changes

The critical function of user research, and product validation in general, is that it tells you what not to do. This is an extremely important, yet elusive truth.

If you’re lucky enough to have never shipped a failed product, you don’t know what it’s like to spend your whole budget on something that the market ultimately rejects.

Experiencing this kind of heartbreak (and it is heartbreak, let’s not pretend it’s “just business”) might be the only way to fully understand why user research isn’t an obstacle, nor an unnecessary novelty.

User research and product validation are simply crucial if you want to make progress instead of continuing to do the wrong things and expecting different results.

You should strive to have a balance of quantitative data, which addresses “what’s happening?”, and qualitative data, which answers “why is this happening?”. Otherwise you are acting in isolation, based only on your assumptions.

Assumptions are only useful when you validate them

The worst mistake you can make is to assume that you know what people need. You need to appreciate the fact that it takes extreme luck for your assumptions to be correct.

Even if it has worked for you before, making decisions based on your instincts is not a repeatable nor a predictable process.

Most likely, you’ll burn through your money and waste time with nothing to show for it, and then you’ll be scrambling to get back on the right track. Why put yourself through this? Just have experienced researchers handle it for you.

What we see very often is that someone without relevant experience or education jumps into research and ends up looking only for confirmation of their assumptions or turning detractors into positives – the greatest crimes of research, which an experienced researcher would never commit!

Products should be designed for users, not executives…

…unless your users are actual executives. As a business owner or project leader, your role isn’t to be the voice of the customer.

Having your own vision is important, since it gives you the drive and confidence necessary to push your initiative forward – but there has to be a limit. Ultimately, if your vision conflicts with user needs, you have to put the users first and your vision second.

Same goes for your experience, which, although it is obviously a huge asset, can actually be a curse.

You can’t trust your experience too much because everything changes much too quickly nowadays.

New generations of users keep driving up the expected standards of UI and UX, creating new and previously unthought of challenges for product designers.

Validation and user research can only create value for you if you’re prepared to readjust all of your assumptions based on the results of your research. Don’t guesstimate the needs and preferences of your users, but make your decisions based on user insights and verifiable evidence.

Visions shouldn’t be set in stone

Don’t get too attached to your vision. A vision should be malleable, it needs to evolve based on research insights.

You can’t really have a true vision until you have the evidence to back it up and the clarity that data (both qualitative and quantitative) provides. With no evidence and no clarity, the best you can have is tunnel vision.

Proper principles of user research

User research is just one part of product-market fit, but it informs nearly everything in your business

User research looks at user behavior, and it uncovers only one part of the big picture view that you need to make decisions.

There are also market trends, competition benchmarks, technology trends – lots of stuff you need to look at in order to get a clear understanding of your business and ecosystem.

User research gives you the desirability element of the puzzle:

  • Desirability (does anyone want this?)
  • Viability (should we build this?)
  • Feasibility (can we build this?)

However, this one element will influence a lot of your decisions across different areas of your business:

  • Strategy and business model
  • Marketing channels and messaging
  • Branding

So, while it’s only one part of product-market fit, user research has a big impact across your business.

Democratization of research doesn’t mean that anyone can do it

There’s a trend called democratization of research. For your organization, democratization of research means:

  • User research is understood
  • The value of user research is known
  • Research results are visible across the organization
  • Product team members can get involved in research and even be trained to run projects of their own

The problem with this is that democratization is often misunderstood as “we don’t need experts, anyone can do user research!”. This is wrong. You can’t just delegate user research to unprepared designers or marketers, it’s not their job and they won’t be able to go as deep as a skilled researcher.

Anyone can talk to a user or look at usage data provided by one software suite or another. However, to extract information that is actually useful and fish out not just the obvious signals but also those that are hidden under the surface takes skill, knowledge, and experience.

It’s a nuanced job, so much so that organizations with the strongest user research competencies actually divide this area into specializations like:

  • Design researchers
  • Product researchers
  • Behavioral researchers
  • Data scientists
  • etc.

This is not something that anybody in your company can knock out in a few hours. That’s why making research visible and accessible across your organization is a-ok, but delegating user research to non-researchers is not a good idea.

Hallway tests packaged as insights are not proper user research

Hallway usability testing is essentially polling random people about your product. A hallway test can mean:

  • Asking your teammates for feedback
  • Collecting opinions from people you meet on the street
  • Reaching out to your social media network

There are cases where hallway usability testing can be a good supplementary tactic, something that can help you plan your actual research better and uncover things you weren’t aware of before.

However, we sometimes see hallway testing offered as full user research, which is simply wrong. It’s most often used as a way to cut corners and get quick but useless data, so be cautious when it comes to hallway testing!

Don’t jump to a conclusion straight away

Researchers don’t jump to conclusions straight away because user research is a bit like playing David Attenborough.

You observe people in their natural habitats, analyze their behaviors, test and iterate solutions, then see how users respond. Finally, you synthesize the collected data and apply your findings to the product development process.

“Natural” is an important keyword here. You can ask users anything you want, but you won’t have the full picture until you understand what they do when they’re left alone.

This is best explained with the yellow Walkman story. If you’ve been building products for a while, you probably know it.

In short: Sony wanted to see if people would like their new, yellow Walkman cassette players over the standard, black ones. They set up a test group and, when asked, all test participants said they liked the yellow Walkman.

At the end of the test, participants could choose between a yellow and black Walkman to take home. Obviously, they chose the yellow ones, right? Nope! Everybody chose the standard, black one.

And this is why you shouldn’t jump to conclusions straight away. Users might tell you one thing, then turn around and do completely the opposite. You need to understand and explore both of these perspectives before reaching a conclusion.

User research breaks down silos in your organization and makes you customer-centric

Every company should be thinking about the customer. Ultra-personalization and laser-focused targeting are some of the most important business practices right now.

If you’re not conducting user research, you can’t really do these things. It’s always baffling to see companies that don’t do research but claim to be customer-centric.

It comes down to organizational culture and leadership. It’s always a game-changer when there are champions of user research in the C-Suite who will use every opportunity to push for more research and greater user understanding.

Only when user research has the appropriate priority in your company can you call it customer-centric.

One of the biggest benefits that comes from this is that any internal dispute can be resolved by looking at data that tells you what the customer needs.

In other words, user research can help you break down the silos within your organization by introducing a single point of focus for everyone – the user.

How much of your budget should you allocate for user research?

It varies. We’ve seen user research cost anywhere between $1,000 and $2.5 million.

To estimate your budget, consider how much knowledge – how much data – you have already collected. If it’s none, you’re already looking at a bigger budget.

Next, consider what you need to test. Are you testing a feature in an established product or do you need to test a whole new app across multiple systems and devices? A single feature will cost less to test.

Has your organization set up feedback loops and done user research before? If the answer is “no”, the initial investment will be bigger because it’ll be necessary to build this process from the ground up.

Properly set up research and validation operations can be very scalable and sustainable. Over time, costs go down as ROI grows, and this investment will keep paying off throughout the whole lifecycle of your product.

TL;DR – don’t listen to Henry Ford

In the race to outperform competitors in a volatile market, it’s tempting to cut corners. But in the current market reality, which is vastly more complex compared to Henry Ford’s era, your vision alone won’t be enough to build a faster horse.

For most managers, ignoring validation in favor of fast time-to-market is the wrong way to go, and will only cause unnecessary stress.

To reduce the risk of failure and save yourself all that stress, you need to have a somewhat symbiotic relationship with your users. This relationship can be achieved through continuous user research.

If you’re wondering what steps you should take to get closer to your users, my LinkedIn inbox is always open!

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Jinder Kang

Innovation Consultancy Lead at Netguru
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