Consumers do know what they want, we just don’t like how they say it

The meme, “It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want” is becoming conventional wisdom due to everyone reading the Steve Jobs bio and retweeting some form of it ad nauseam.

Unfortunately most of the people aping the line are doing it out of context and using it to justify not listening to customers at all. When Jobs said it, he was responding to a question about market research. He wasn’t putting down customers. I think he thought market research was pointless. You don’t need to spend time and money asking people the same question – “if we solve your problem will you buy our product?” He already knew the answer and trusted his own judgement over those far removed from the creative process.

Most market research is optimized for collecting, processing, and normalizing. It’s totally uninspiring and mechanical by design. If you want to learn anything about someone, you need to spend some time with them in a meaningful conversation.

While Steve Jobs wasn’t great at engaging customers, he did listen, and he was genuinely interested in creating something of value for people. The challenge in talking to customers is they usually lack the vocabulary to articulate things in neat, tidy, ready-for-production concepts.

You don’t need to listen to customers if all you want are answers. If you’re looking for inspiration and the raw goods to breakthrough ideas, then you should be all ears.