What Do Consumers Want? They Don’t Always Know.

In Don Reinertsen’s book “Developing Products in Half the Time,” he talks about consumer needs using the example of sporting goods (something I’m pretty familiar with). He says – and this is something I have personally observed – that consumers don’t attribute ‘Pro Athlete usage’ of products as having any influence on their buying decision. These consumers say they decide to purchase based on product performance.

I’ve seen this exact same comment made by golfers: “It doesn’t matter if professionals are playing the product – I buy based on performance.”

But as Reinertsen accurately describes, the professional athlete endorsement influences a consumer’s perception of the brand, their perception of product performance, and it therefore does indeed affect the buying decision, albeit indirectly.

What’s this all mean for product developers?

Market research must be taken with a grain of sand. Not super profound or original, but worth noting.

The often-cited quotes relating to this concept are:
1. “They would have asked for a faster horse.” Henry Ford
2. “A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Steve Jobs

I may not have the exact wording, but that’s the gist. It’s legitimate thinking – you can’t always rely on just delivering what the consumer says he or she wants.

So what?

One answer is that you need to observe the consumer firsthand. What are they buying, what are they doing, why, and how are they behaving in the situations related to the purchasing process and product usage? This alludes to the sociological factors you read about in the IDEO design books like Change by Design. Those authors advocate getting into the field and observing, and to a large degree, I completely agree…there is no substitute for first-hand experience.