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How UX would have helped Henry Ford

By Gareth Dunlop
How UX would have helped Henry Ford

The business textbooks are rightfully kind to Henry Ford – kinder certainly than to his only recognised son Edsel Ford – after whom the least successful automobile in the company’s long and proud history was named.  Ford Senior rightly garners much credit for the democratisation of the motor car, propelling it from aspirational to attainable in a generation through efficient production processes and widespread availability via innovative franchising models.

Despite imparting much wisdom over his decades in leadership, he is most commonly remembered for two memorable quotes.

The first one, “You can have it in any colour you want as long as it’s black” surely was one of those jokes where you had to be there?  Perhaps Henry’s team had grown used to the idea that Henry’s jokes needed laughed at, whether funny or not.  “You can respond to my bad jokes any way you want as long as it’s with uproarious laughter” might be closer to the truth.

It’s his second famous quote that forms the basis for this tome however “If we’d asked our customers what they wanted they’d have said faster horses”. 

At first glance this appears to suggest that customer research is the enemy of innovation however I hope to argue that the opposite is the case.

The reason?  Because you invest in your customers not to mine for the solution but to understand the problem.  In fact, it’s because of the complementary nature of understanding the customer and innovation thinking that all of the respected methodologies around product, service and experience design insist on first understanding the problem before designing the solution.

If Ford had spoken to his customers he would have learned that they wanted a faster way to travel from A to B, that horses were smelly and high–maintenance and that carriages were too expensive for all but the upper–middle and upper classes.  In other words, he would have realised that there were real transport problems which could be solved through innovation.

His customers therefore would have helped him define the problem statement.  It was always going to be the job of Henry and his boys to innovate the solution.

Ford, like other famous visionaries such as Jobs and Branson were born with an innate intuition which allowed them to distill shifts in society, technological advances and commercial opportunity to innovate and make money.  However, for mere mortals like you and I, the componentry of innovation has been deconstructed into structured methods which help guide the origination process.

Five whys (an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause–and–effect relationships underlying a particular problem), the magic question (“if you had a faster horse, what would you let it do”), and innovation sprints all provide means by which designers and strategists give themselves the very best opportunity for good outcomes.

Ford’s intuition was to fail him in the 1920s, as General Motor’s research–led approach gave them competitive advantages in trade–ins, innovative ownership models, and variations in car colour and style.  Their approach to the market, underpinned by research, was simply titled “A Car for Every Purse and Purpose.”  Their competition halved Ford’s market share from 2/3 in 1921, to 1/3 five short years later.

Harvard Business Review’s Patrick Vlaskovits summarises it best “The real lesson learned was not that Ford’s failure was one of not listening to his customers, but of his refusal to continuously test his vision against reality, which led to the Ford Motor Company’s failure of continuous innovation, resulting in a catastrophic loss of market share from which it never recovered.”

It is only right that one applauds Ford’s mettle in introducing an innovation as revolutionary as the motor–car into the mainstream.  And part of that involves admiring his intuition and his nerve in following through on his vision.  But to tell the whole story, one must also reflect that this same belief in his own intuition stifled his success and his company’s growth.

Throughout, he would have got further and faster if he had complemented his own genius and bravery by investing in better understanding the needs and desires of his customers in the short, medium and long terms.

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