"If I had asked people what they wanted, they' would have said faster horses."
The quote is attributed to Henry Ford.
He probably never said it, but I've heard it several times: as a counter-argument to user-centered design. According to the motto: We should not be concerned with the users* because we know better what they need anyway. I think it's wrong.
Especially since it's implausible.
Accepting instead of listening
Imagine you go into a shop, for example a bookstore, and the salesperson comes up to you and says: "Stop. Don't say anything. I know what you need. Here, you should definitely read this book."
Sorry, no? Maybe it does meet your taste, but honestly, how likely is that. It is much more likely that the salesperson will either show you something he/she has enjoyed reading or be guided by assumptions and stereotypes. For example: "Man looks like business, so the cafe at the end of the world would be something."
The "why" is where it gets interesting
Moreover, the person who uses the wrong Henry Ford quote to argue against user-centricity has probably never witnessed a real user study. He or she may assume that you simply ask users what they need and use the result one-to-one.
The opposite is true. In most cases, the answer to the question "Do you need this feature?" is as useless as the feature itself. The exciting happens afterwards, with two completely different questions: Why? and What else?
Why uncovers the underlying needs - sometimes you have to ask several questions first.
The "What else?" leads to further aspects that a solution should consider.
Actually, you're already pretty well equipped with these two questions.
Why faster horses?
What would people have answered Henry Ford if he had answered "faster horses" 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.
I don't find it so implausible why a car does pretty well there.
And if you think now, 150 years later, of horses that leave nothing behind and cost nothing if I don't use them, then maybe you'll get out with electric mobility and car sharing. That much the users "know", after all.