There’s a quote from Henry Ford that is sewn into the fabric of modern experience design. It’s simple, super-quotable, and everyone “gets it”. It goes:
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
There’s a problem though… he never said it. Just like finding out Santa Claus isn’t real, you are having your illusions shattered finding out Henry Ford never said people wanted faster horses. In fact, no one knows who said it, or if it is even a genuine statement as opposed to a handcrafted, semi-patronizing one-liner. It may as well be a statement engineered to start or end meeting-room arguments around customer research.
What Was the Question Again?
So what exactly was the problem that Henry Ford didn’t ask about? Why do we assume that slow horses were even a legitimate problem? People had no concept of cars or jets, so was the spirit of the time that horses were just to slow? Before writing this post, I had never delved into the quote, even though I’ve used it more than a few times. As I think about it now, I am not even sure it makes sense. When faced with transportation woes and lack of innovation today, people today don’t respond with “faster cars”. The speed of horses, or cars, has never been a problem. Of course, it’s just a metaphor, we’re not supposed to take it literally. So what is it trying to teach?
The Real Problem
Since the base premise is around the usage of horses as a metaphor for the “status quo” of transportation, let’s look at it for a minute. Horses have been a preferred means of transportation for thousands of years. The earliest record of domestic horse usage for transportation goes back as far as 2000 BCE. As we built more and more complex, crowded villages, towns, cities, horses became a real problem. Here are some of the things people would have responded with if you asked a mid-late 19th century city planner what he needed with regards to equine transportation:
- An easier way to remove the average of 41 dead horses a day on the streets of New York
- Some place to relocate the 1200~ metric tons of manure produced each day, and someone to do the relocating
- Some place to stable the 100,000+ horses that operated within New York, and food to feed them
The list goes on. While that is a lot of problems, consider the actual outcomes of those problems, the real real problems:
- Dried manure dust
- Soaked manure mire
- Cruelty to horses
- Horse related traffic deaths
That’s a much more painful list. Some are obvious pains, some are a little more subtle. For instance, horse related traffic deaths were higher per capita than automobile deaths today. So what do you do? You invent traffic laws, rules of the road. The original system of traffic order originated from horse problems, not car problems. Believe it or not, there was a time when there were so many horses that it was part of the 1898 International Urban Planning Conference summit in New York. There were a lot of problems with horses that were reaching a tipping point of inefficiency. Something had to be done, but talking to the “users” about solutions wasn’t going to solve anything – looking at the pain was. There was another problem – this isn’t what Ford cared about.
This is not good for business.
Solving Real Problems
The fictional Henry Ford who said it wasn’t trying to solve a horse problem. In fact, he wasn’t really trying to solve anyone’s transportation problem – he was trying to solve the high cost of automobiles through assembly lines, interchangeable parts, and financing. If that was the case, the problem he seemed to be solving wasn’t really about horses, but people of the time might have thought he was. Or better, they might have seen it as a care problem; they’re too expensive. Instead of focusing on the problems with manure removal machines, Ford instead solved it, intentionally or not, by brining the automobile to the common person. This could be considered parallel innovation and revolution. It is the parallel innovation that attacked and began to solve the real pain of the problem.
Spurring on Better Questions
The crux of “asking for faster horses” is based in the idea of solving a root problem with something that negates it altogether, and not just swaps out iterative “good enough” solutions that are focused on directly addressing the “what people want” instead of a solution that makes asking the question irrelevant. What we are often faced with is not real solutions to the real problem, but a more manageable solution to replace what we already have. A race to “good enough”, weighing the gains vs. the cost of implementation and the other problems “good enough” will cause. A race to the bottom, where we swap out solution after solution. That is the “faster horses” metaphor is assuming. And it’s not unrealistic given how we typical develop products and services. If we’re trying to iterate on an experience, the focus is on the pain or pleasure, not the supposed functional problem. Who is your user, what do they have (a horse) and what is the pain (the result of horse problems). Now you have something to work with. You can go iterative, perpendicular, parallel, as long as you’re focused on the pain and the outcome. In this specific case, Ford’s goal was getting more cars to more people. Sort of like electric cars today – just stop trying to solve oil and gas generated problems and focus on the desired outcome. Maybe the electric are is the answer, but maybe not. Can anyone articulate the modern “faster horses” question of the 21st century?
Straight From the Horses Mouth
All in all, if people in the late 1800’s could have articulated what they wanted when asked, it might have been around solving this disgusting manure problem. If that was the answer, then iteration on manure solutions would have only left them drowning in slightly less shit. Fortunately, this fictional Ford may have looked at it as “forget horse problems, what if we can eliminate these problems altogether?” User centered design of products or services will always be faced with the same issue. People may never know what they want, and focusing on the problems they are specifically having might take us down paths towards iterating on “good enough” instead of understanding the base emotional problem and aspiring towards innovating something that solves problems in truly great ways. The faster horses quote will never die. It’s a nice, easy to understand metaphor. But maybe design and experience problems can be approached with a 2nd quote, something like:
Henry Ford looked at problems people actually had, and came up with new solutions that people couldn’t articulate or conceive of.
Hmm. That’s not nearly as catchy and quotable. Maybe a hundred years from now it will be replaced by an equally misguided quote from Elon Musk regarding “If Elon Musk had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster gasoline motors.” Or, if you’re an 80’s kid: