Do people really know what they want?

In my previous post I shared a story about how the most important thing a product manager can do is to listen and understand the customer.

That idea left people with a question - if that is really the case then what about the famous quote by Steve jobs "People don't know what they want until you show it to them". Worth noting that Jobs also mentioned during the same interview that he does not believe you should give your customers what they want, and went on to quote Henry Ford, who also famously said “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’”.

So what does this all mean? People don’t know what they want and product managers should take Divination classes at Hogwarts?
You see, these quotes sound nice and bold for the radio, but it still does not give you the entire picture.

The issue here is the concrete distinction we have to make between the problem and the solution. The most important job of a product manager or a CEO of a startup or anyone who is trying to create a product is indeed to listen and understand what the customer’s problems are, and the second most important job is how you are going to solve those problems. These things are not the same, they are two very different tasks.

Let's take a few steps back and remember our Intro to Business courses. According to the world famous psychologist A. Maslow, people are driven by five basic needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Although Maslow himself noted that the idea lacks real scientific basis, it is nevertheless a simple visual representation of human needs.

At the time when Steve Jobs made the famous bold statement in 1998, people were already using cell-phones, disc players, mp3 players, and computers. So was there really no perceivable user need? Did Apple really spend millions on manufacturing something that was just a well designed guess?

Obviously not, obviously folks at Apple did their research, they knew the market, they knew the competitors and what problems they were trying to solve. Apple did not create the need for music by providing music players, and did not create the need for safety, or being connected by inventing cell-phones. What Apple did is provide an elegant solution for those problems.

This, you see, is where I think the best product managers shine. You see a problem, you understand the problem, you understand who your customers are and you deliver the best solution to that problem for your customers. Steve jobs or Henry Ford didn’t invent people’s needs, and they didn’t spend billions on production of a fancy divination. They understood the customer’s needs, emotional and physical, rational and irrational needs. Fast forward a couple of years and everyone wants to be a part of the exclusive club of people who dared to “think different, be creative and radical, and be different”.

Do these visionary leaders have extraterrestrial abilities? Do they just take a wild guess at what people want and spend billions to manufacture it? I don't think they do , at least not all of them, but they have talent, real talent, which they put into understanding the user, what they feel, how they think, what they don’t know they want and provide a solution that solves those needs.

Former Product Manager @ PicsArt Inc.