You don’t really want a faster horse!

French Officers watering horses
Horses, going slowly. Photo by The Library of Congress - http://flic.kr/p/a88fYb

Henry Ford is quoted as saying “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse!”. While this might be true, this is a short sighted view of product management.

Often, our customers will ask us for something they want, but they’ll frame it in the context of something they already have. This seems to them to be the right thing to do. It’s helping us out as the people who build their products, right? Kind of. If we were to take the view that customers always know what they want, then I suppose so. However, our customers will endeavour to give us a solution to the problem they have, instead of being clear about their problem and letting the problem solvers have at it instead.

If your customer says “I want to be able to send an email to all my users informing them of X,Y and Z.”, You’d think they what they wanted to do was send an email to customers about X, Y and Z. But is that what they really want?

If you probe a little deeper, by asking open questions, you might find a different answer:

“What is X, Y and Z?”, you ask.
“Well, it’s the new promotions we offer, we want to tell our users about them as they might not find them in the promotion list.” Replies your customer.
“How does the promotion list currently show them?” you probe.
“It’s ordered with the newest on top, but if our customers aren’t looking for promotions, they might miss them.”
“So, you need a way of highlighting your newest promotions?”
“Yeah, I guess so. But we’d like to be able to send them emails about other things as well, like changes to our terms, or new features.”
“OK, so am I right in saying you need some way of informing your customers of new features, promotions and other pertinent information?”
“Yes!”

Now you have the real problem, which turns out to have little to do with email and there are many ways to solve this kind of problem. It’s now a case of discussing these ideas further with the customer and the team in order to find the right solution … which might not be a complex email system.

So, if Henry Ford had asked his customers: “What do you want?” and they said “A faster horse!”, he might have asked, “What do you need a faster horse for?” and the answer might well have been, “Duhh! To go faster!” Which is the real requirement. One that he fulfilled quite well.

Originally published on Technorati.

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One thought on “You don’t really want a faster horse!

  1. Hi Mike,

    I think the essence of getting proper requirements is:

    1- Understand the business of the client
    2- Interview the client about his needs – Ask as many questions as you can, based these questions on his understanding of the business

    I have published many (I mean many) articles on requirements management on PM Hut, you can find them here.

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