Breeding Faster Horses – Misunderstanding User Experience

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

This quote makes my teeth grind. It’s attributed to Henry Ford and supposedly  relates to the origins of the Model-T Ford, but there is no evidence of him ever actually saying it… although that’s not why I have a problem with it.

It’s often used to justify ignoring user research, but all it does is demonstrate a misunderstanding of how feedback should be interpreted. It suggests that we should take whatever someone says about our product or service as verbatim, and not look any deeper.

Don’t take things so literally

But being user-centered is not the same as being user-led. The latter suggests any feedback is taken literally whereas user-centered is about reading between the lines, it’s about discovering root cause. Alan Cooper sums this up nicely:

“[Doctor], I Broke my arm, the bone is sticking out, it hurts like hell, but I find that if I hold it in this position the pain is at a local minimum. So would you please duct tape it to my body in this position so it doesn’t hurt every time I take a step?”

“When they come to you […] with bones sticking out of their body it means there is a problem and you have to bring your expertise to bear and analyze the problem and come up with a solution.”
Alan Cooper, 2006

Putting Innovation in Context

The quote makes Ford out to be a ‘rockstar designer’, a gifted genius that gave birth to an idea without consultation or external input. But there would have been many contributing factors that lead to its success at the time.

At the end of the 19th Century many cities were in a state of emergency. By 1894 the over reliance on horses had led to the Great Horse Manure Crisis, with The Times newspaper even predicting that “In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.”

The problem wasn’t just limited to manure, each horse also produced over two pints of urine a day. Working horses only lasted for about 3 years, and carcasses were often left in the streets to putrefy, so that chopping them up for removal was made easier. Add to all of this the plague of typhoid-carrying flies and you can start to gain an appreciation for some of the socio-economic motivations which contributed to the rise of automobiles.

Understanding Customers

I’d argue that Ford had a deeper understanding of his intended customers than the quote suggests. The Model-T wasn’t the first car to be manufactured, the top-tier of society was already well catered for. Ford instead chose to focus on Middle America. He identified his customers would be an average sized family of moderate income, with limited technical ability and free time.

He would have appreciated the cost of owning horses and the restrictions on lower-income households unable to escape the cities they lived in. As the son of a farmer Ford had first-hand experience of the hard work and scant reward associated with many popular occupations, so would have felt empathy for such families. He wanted to help them avoid the grinding life of hard labour by developing the means for an easier, yet more productive, life.

“I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest design that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
‘My Life and Work’, Henry Ford (1922)

So, Ford identified a target audience with which he could empathise. He knew the limitations of the current product and the huge problems it was creating for customers and society in general. He’d know that greater speed, or reduced journey time, would be a benefit but not the only factor to consider, and was also aware of the financial and technical constraints he’d have to work within.

Disrupting the Market

The first Model-T launched in 1908. Regarded as the first affordable automobile, it opened up travel to the common middle-class American. By the time the 10 millionth unit rolled off the production line in 1924 50% of all cars in the world were Fords.

A big part of the success of the Model-T is often attributed to the invention of assembly line production. But even that wasn’t a new invention. The concept of mass production already existed in Europe (as far back as 1802) and was introduced to Ford by William “Pa” Klann, after he visited a slaughterhouse in Chicago (Swift & Company) to study how they butchered animals along a conveyor, referred to as the “disassembly line”. So through user observation Ford was able to identify the efficiency of one person doing the same small task over and over again compared to the artisan approach of other car manufacturers at the time.

“Henry Ford is generally regarded as the father of mass production. He was not. He was the sponsor of it.”
‘My Forty Years with Ford’, Sorensen (1956)

As a start-up he was doing well; he understood his audience, had identified his constraints, and had looked beyond his own industry for innovation in production.

But as a ‘rockstar designer’ Ford took his eye off the ball – he believed what he had created, both in the Model-T and the production process, was perfect first time. He refused to change either. Even with the growing success of emergent competitors who were more than willing to adapt.

“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants as long as it is black.”
‘My Life and Work’, Henry Ford (1922)

Ford believed the Model-T was all the car a person would, or could, ever need, so why change it?

Competitors looked beyond the initial requirements, realising that people wanted more choice. They soon began offering greater levels of comfort, styling options, as well as evolving the production process to drive more competitive pricing.

…And What Would You Use a Faster Horse For?

“To paraphrase Confucius, when customers point to the moon, the naive product manager examines their finger.”
‘Mistakes We All Make With Product Feedback’, Des Traynor

The Faster horses anecdote is used to justify not listening to customers. But that completely misses the point. When questioned, if people’s first reaction was to ask for faster horses they’d really be telling you that speed or duration was a major factor to travel. One response might be to ask “and what would you use a faster horse for?”. Beyond that, knowing the context in which customers travelled would indicate that faster horses would only help to solve one particular symptom of a much larger problem.

By only taking into account one factor, what the user tells us, we risk misdiagnosis. By considering all aspects provides us with the ability to truly understand the problem.

“An innovator should have an understanding of one’s customers and their problems, via empirical, observational, anecdotal methods or even intuition.”
‘Henry Ford, Innovation, and That “Faster Horse” Quote’, Patrick Vlaskovits



One thought on “Breeding Faster Horses – Misunderstanding User Experience

  1. Nice article Paul.

    I think you hit the nail on the head at the end with “knowing the context in which customers travelled would indicate that faster horses would only help to solve one particular symptom of a much larger problem”.

    In most instances it is observing the natural behaviour using a product or service that will provide real insight rather than rely on what users are saying.

    Liked by 1 person

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