When faster horses become cars

Von Julian Traut

13. January 2020

"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

This quote is attributed to Henry Ford.

He probably never said it, but I have heard it several times as a counter-argument to user-centered design. In these situation the quote was used to outline the motto: We shouldn't concern ourselves with the users, because we know better what they need anyway. I think that's wrong.

Especially since it's implausible.

Assuming instead of listening

Imagine you go into a shop, for example a bookstore, when the salesman comes up to you and says: "Stop. Don't say anything. I know exactly what you need. Here, you should definitely read this book."

Weird, right? Maybe he does meet your taste, but honestly, what are the odds? It is much more likely that the salesman will either show you something he liked or he will be guided by assumptions and stereotypes. For example: "This man looks like some business guy, so "Cafe at the End of the World" might fit."

Challenging assumptions with "why"

The person who uses the Henry Ford quote to argue against user centricity has probably never witnessed a proper user study. He or she may assume that users are simply asked what they need and the results find their way into some backlog one-to-one.

The opposite is true. Usually the answer to the question "Do you need this feature?" is as useless as the feature itself. The exciting thing happens afterwards, with two completely different questions: Why? and What else?

"Why?" uncovers the underlying needs - sometimes you have to ask several times to uncover the really valuable answers.

The "What else?"" leads to further aspects that a solution should consider.

In my experience, you're already pretty well equipped with these two questions.

Why faster horses?

What would people have answered Henry Ford if he had answered the "Faster horses" answer with "Why?" or "What else?"

  • I'd like to get from A to B as quickly as possible.
  • I'd like to have horses that will obey me to the letter.
  • And horses that won't eat unless I ride them.
  • And horses that don't leave behind horse manure.

I think it is quite plausible that an automobile performs quite well here.

And if you think now, 150 years later, of horses that do not leave anything behind and do not cost anything while unused, then maybe you'll get to electric mobility and car sharing. That much the users do "know" after all.