One of the most common critiques I hear of Lean and customer development principles is that customers don’t know what they want until you show it to them.
There are examples that would indicate that customers know what they want, and there are examples that would indicate that they don’t:
Apple, and potentially some other companies (ie Twitter, Zynga, etc), might indicate that “no,” customers don’t know what they want until you’ve shown them.
There are also many examples of entrepreneurs spending lots of time and money building out their vision, only to find later that no one wanted their product. These companies don’t get press or speak at conferences. You’ve never heard of them. They’ve failed. You may not realize it, but it happens all the time.
There are many examples of customers knowing exactly what they want, and of entrepreneurs being able to validate that before building a product. For example, check out How Wiley Cerilli Used Customer Development in Building SinglePlatform. Salesforce and Tableau are other examples that come to mind of startups that could pretty easily validate demand before building a product. PetFlow used a landing page technique.
So, my answer to the question posed in the title is…sometimes. Customers sometimes know what they want. However: I think the more important question is whether or not to pursue something that customers don’t know they want. Let’s consider some examples to illustrate the importance of this question.
Case 1: People who believe that customers don’t know what they want until they show them often spend months or longer building a product, and trying to sell or market it to customers before talking to even a single customer. Or they do go out and talk to customers and despite receiving no positive feedback from customers, proceed fourth anyways. As discussed above, sometimes these people are right and the product performs well. And sometimes they are wrong and they just wasted a bunch of time and money. Probably far more likely the latter. It’s a high risk proposition.
Case 2: People who really want to make sure they’re building something that people want will go get input from customers and run experiments to validate demand (i.e. customer development). The result is either they gain confidence that they’re building something people want, they gain some customer insights that will help them improve the product offering, or they simply move on to the next opportunity without spending nearly as much time or money.
In case 1, had they practiced customer development effectively, they could have learned pretty quickly that no one wants their product and simply moved on to better opportunities. Or, by asking the right questions, they could have gained insights to improve their idea and find something that customers do want.
The decision about whether to pursue an idea that (supposedly) can’t be validated without a product ultimately comes down to your risk tolerance, assets, and goals.
Apple had a huge budget and one of the best visionaries of all time. How do you compare to Apple and Steve Jobs in terms of time and capital budget, risk tolerance, and ability to predict what customers want? If your idea is one that can’t be validated without a product and/or a huge marketing campaign, you could think about whether or not it’s one you even want to pursue.
Could customer development result in missed opportunities? Most likely, yes. But do you want to have confidence that you’re spending time and money on something that can be a business, or do you just want to build cool products and see what happens?
I actually even think that something like an iPad or Twitter could be tested, or at least iteratively developed to avoid waste and that there are only rare cases when a product that people actually want can’t be validated.
Bottom line: Sometimes customers don’t know what they want, but it’s up to you to decide whether to pursue an opportunity where they don’t.
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