steve jobs vs. market research

From the NYT obituary of Steve Jobs:

Mr. Jobs’s own research and intuition, not focus groups, were his guide. When asked what market research went into the iPad, Mr. Jobs replied: “None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

This may sound blunt and arrogant, as fast-moving minds often do, but Matt Bai expands:

In other words, while Mr. Jobs tried to understand the problems that technology could solve for his buyer, he wasn’t going to rely on the buyer to demand specific solutions, just so he could avoid ever having to take a risk. This is what’s commonly known as leading.

This point has great relevance to transit and urban planning generally.  Citizens express their desires lots of ways, but few of those expressions tell planners exactly what to do.  "Research," as Jobs uses the term, probably means a very broad process of perceiving what customers are actually doing, how they're responding to existing products — many other sources apart from asking them what they want.  It also means relating those desires to the some sense of what's mathematically and physically possible.  The synthesis of these inputs requires a certain amount of science but also a certain amount of inspiration or instinct. 

You can ask a citizen anything, but the trick is to figure out if the frame of reference you're using is the one that actually matters to their decisions, and even you get only part of your answer.  Often we ask questions that express the questioner's interest rather than the citizen's.  (In the extreme form, this becomes push-polling.)    For example, suppose we ask: "Should we build light rail or a busway here?"  Well, not everyone is interested in technology-choice questions, and from those people we'll get low-commitment answers that don't mean much.  Some people are happy to say "no opinion," while others feel compelled to state a view no matter how faintly they may feel about it.  These vagaries of mood or temperament make a huge difference to research outcomes, especially when the question isn't stated in a way that engages what the citizen actually cares about.  (In focus groups, peer pressure makes "no opinion" less of an option, but that doesn't give me any more confidence that the right question has been asked, if indeed there even is a right question.)

So I would rather ask the public big questions about what they think transit is for, and what it should be trying to do.  "Do you see transit in your community as primarily a social service for people who can't drive?  If so do you think it should remain in that role?"  "Should transit serve every bit of the city, or focus on areas where it can carry high ridership?"  "Here are five possible goals that transit could focus on; what do you think should be the prioirty among them?"

But most importantly, we in the transit business have to think, not just analytically but in a more humanistic way that's open to inspiration and flashes of insight. 

Because we have to take risks, and while you can analyze risks forever, only inspiration gives you the confidence to take one.

17 Responses to steve jobs vs. market research

  1. EngineerScotty October 6, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Many focus groups are undertaken, not to truly understand what the marketplace wants, but to give project teams an alibi should the project fail. You’re much more likely to get fired for a big bet that fails than a small bet that fails.
    This is one of several bits of management miswisdom that Jobs knew well to ignore.
    Another thing that Jobs understood but many of his competitors did not (or weren’t permitted to by their management) is to get the product right. Too many product development efforts are constrained first and foremost by budget and schedule; it doesn’t matter so much what ships as when, and when rubber meets road, the parts that are often the most interesting and useful (but the parts that are hardest) are jettisoned. But it’s these hard parts, because they are hard, that are most likely to be differentiators.
    A third is the value of strategy and long-term planning; far too many businesses are only interested in the next product cycle and the next quarter’s profits.

  2. David October 6, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    Henry Ford said : If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse”. I would suggest it is he same for things Steve Jobs brought us (such as the iPad i’m using this instant) and lots of other innovations we haven’t seen yet. People can’t express a opinion on something they have no knowledge of. At least they shouldn’t !

  3. Alon Levy October 6, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    On the subject of Jobs, I find this quote by him puzzling. He did not invent the MP3 player, or the smartphone, or the tablet. All of those existed before Apple got into the business. Apple’s contribution was to make products that most users found better. The iPod lets you browse your MP3 collection as easily as a computer. The iPhone has a touchscreen, which people other than me seem to like, and works more like a vendor-locked computer than a cellphone with respect to games and browser plug-ins like Flash.
    With transit, the important thing is to discount the technophiles who think new technology is about to make all knowledge that others have learned in the last hundred years irrelevant (but somehow never the technophiles’ own knowledge). There’s room for vision, there’s room for planners who ask the big questions and help people realize their values, and there’s room for engineers who answer very specific questions like “How much will features XYZ cost?”. But those are all in the context of serving riders rather than harboring fantasies of changing everything with an innovation the unwashed masses don’t know they want.

  4. Jarrett at October 6, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    For the record, I'm haven't bitten the apple, so to speak, myself.  Apple is notorious for sacrificing functionality for someone's idea of cool.   OS X Lion's disappearing scrollbars  are maddening.  The power cable on MacBooks is designed to fall out easily.  And don't get me started on touchpads, which are why I cling to my hard-buttoned Blackberry despite RIM's imminent implosion.  Apple spends a lot of time telling me:  "You don't like typing on touchpads?  There must be something wrong with you."

  5. Eric O October 6, 2011 at 8:20 pm #

    Well see, Jarrett, I have never owned an Apple product precisely because I resented Steve Jobs telling me his new gadget is what I really wanted. Of course, my innate Calvinism makes me flee all things designed to be fetishized, but I think it actually went deeper. It assaulted my agency as a designer to be told what I need to be creative with. It was a howler to me to see all these folks lining up to earn their rebel cred.

  6. Rob October 6, 2011 at 9:16 pm #

    I hated the trackpad at first, but have found that the gestures built into the new Mac operating system have elevated its value and now I miss it when I have to use a mouse (but only on a mac!) I thought the iPod was a weird trivial excursion at first too, but Steve was several steps ahead, knowing where it could lead.
    I’ve often wished for a Steve Jobs of transit. Someone with a vision of how it would work if “it just worked”, and the dedication to make it so. Most transit is a huge compromise in service design, operating performance and customer communications, and its biggest challenge often is the willingness of its users and fans to overlook those compromises uncritically. We accept too much that we shouldn’t.
    I’ve known people I think are like Steve Jobs; maybe not as confident or charismatic, but systems-oriented with a keen awareness of how customers experience is affected by how transit works – and I find they are rarely in charge. We put people in charge who know about management and organizations, not the ones who have a laser focus on how to produce a product that delights the customer, or at worst works as expected without thinking too hard about it.

  7. Alon Levy October 6, 2011 at 9:52 pm #

    Hey, I hate Apple products as much as anyone. Hating Macs is not exactly a unique thing – Macs are a marginal product both as a share of the computer market and as a share of Apple’s profits (15%, with most of the rest coming from devices). And unlike most people, I think touchscreens are pure evil, and because my BlackBerry has one I’ve accidentally hit the mute button with my jaw multiple times.
    But the touchscreens seem to be popular – that’s probably why RIM adopted them, and consequently managed to revive its faltering market share. And for zooming in a webpage, on my Torch the iPhone-style touchscreen zoom tends to work better than the BlackBerry mouse button, which has an annoying tendency to over-zoom. (For anything else, the BlackBerry mouse is way better.)
    Ditto the apps. On the other hand, it could be a regional thing. The iPhone is dominant in the US; outside the US, things are different.

  8. Tom West October 7, 2011 at 6:18 am #

    We seem to bedrifting towards a conversation on the merits of Apple’s products. Coming back to Jarett’s post (!), I think the issue is that the general public isn’t supposed to come up with solutions. Instead, the public is supposed to come up with problems, and professionals devise solutions. However, given the multitude of (potenitally conflicting) problems, then the key thing is to ask teh public which problems they think are more important.
    This isn’t unique to transit. On my last visit to a hospital, the two problems were the wait time and how uncomrtable the chairs were. Both are fixable by the hospital, but one is far more important than the other. (Although, if teh chairs were comfortable, the wait time would have mattered less…)

  9. Chris Bradshaw October 7, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    The car is yesterday’s ipod: a solution to a limitation people felt.
    To put the automobile in a more limited role, we do need a Stephen Jobs for city transportation. But as pointed out, there is probably no way for a Stephen Jobs to rise to the top in a fractured field that is dominated by the public sector and producers of sports products and footwear, both of which pander to “style.”
    We need to focus on the seat-mile, a unit that can fill all trips beyond walking distance, using a lively mix of vehicles, none of them owned by the traveler.
    Now, where does it lead us? Can it revive the long-held dream of a city that maximizes commerce and minimizes commotion?

  10. Alex B. October 7, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    The public nature of transportation and planning makes it a little more difficult to treat market research in the way that Jobs did.
    I think Jarrett’s broad approach is the right one – frame the market research in terms of goals and allow the professionals to develop the outcomes that meet those goals, and then return to the community and present the idea.
    That said, the challenge of acceptance is different. If Jobs makes a product that flops, only Apple’s shareholders are on the line. If a transit agency or some other public entity does so (or even in just making a decision about a line location or something), you end up opening the door to claims of ‘social engineering’ and other often ridiculous accusations. It’s a tricky line to walk.

  11. Andre Lot October 8, 2011 at 12:10 am #

    “Now, where does it lead us? Can it revive the long-held dream of a city that maximizes commerce and minimizes commotion?”
    I think that implies a direct loss in quality of life. In most of Western World, where space is not really a problem, the dream would be make low-density living (e.g., bigger houses) possible without bringing congestion, with people moving around fast in some futuristic system, like PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) or who knows.
    But even the if people are to accept a loss on house space and live more cramped, less mobility automatically reduces options of jobs, places to shop (measured as floor space per 10.000 inhabitants), leisure options etc.
    The idea of rolling back to a place where people are too much tied to an specific neighborhood where they live, eat, work and have fun seems a backwards movement to 19th Century, not a set to the future.

  12. Richard Campbell October 8, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    @Andre Lot
    Density (and mixed) increases job options, places to shop and leisure options especially for the young, the old and people without the money to by car. Mobility is best defined as the ability to access options in a reasonable amount of time, not the ability to travel a certain distance in that same amount of time. The land required for parking and roads makes low density auto-depend development fundamentally inefficient from a mobility point of view.

  13. Andre L. October 8, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    @Richard Campbell: my theory is that some kind of futuristic system in line with a PRT (unscheduled, no fixed route, automatically operated, electric-powered, with complete automated so it doesn’t crash, doesn’t require heavy safety collapsible outer casing) would make transportation easy and cheap.
    The whole hype about cycling, “having anything within 3 miles” is, for me, like the backwards “eat local” movement: sure I can be biologically fed without resorting to exotic imported fruits from Peru or Israeli spices, but who is to tell me I should eat (in my case) a boring selection of potatoes, North Atlantic fish, Scottish beef and European sweet beet as the main items grown in the vicinity?
    Is more or less the same with transportation: that we can organize a city in a medieval fashion with claustrophobic streets, everyone living in top of someone else, and people walking or at most biking to their workplaces doesn’t mean we should strive necessarily for that.
    So I’m betting on some tectonic breakthrough akin to what the car represented on the early 20th Century to allow us even further possibilities of de-localizing ourselves without having to burn oil products or self-driving a 1,2 ton vehicle for that. That wouldn’t preclude people wanting to live close to their workplaces, but would bring even greater freedom for those wanting to routinely live 100km away from the same workplace, in a remote development in the woods linked by a super-slim magnetic trail elevated 3m from ground able to send automated deliver packages and also vehicles that take me without having to be in close proximity (less than 1 meter) to any other human being, and work all the way during my non-stop trip from my house in the wood development in the Rockies to my Denver office – for instance. Go skiing in the morning and still arrive for a mid-afternoon meeting with zero time lost on transporting myself, zero need to cope with strangers on the transport, zero need to drive a vehicle myself, zero need to burn liquid fuels.

  14. Aleks Bromfield October 8, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

    Here’s what always gets me about PRT.
    People like to compare PRT to elevators. You press a button, it shows up, and takes you to your destination.
    But what people seem to forget is that elevators are not personal. If someone else is going to a similar destination, or even just in the same direction, there’s a good chance that you’ll share a vehicle with them.
    And elevators don’t give you point-to-point service either! They take you to a single “transfer point” on each floor, and from there, you need to walk to your final destination.
    That said, I do think that elevators are a great model for public transportation. They’re super-high-frequency, (so wait time is virtually nil); they have no human operators (so operating costs are virtually nil); and they’re seamless (elevators feel like an extension of the floor).
    The closest analogy in the horizontal world are “people movers”, like SkyTrain in Vancouver, or the systems that keep popping up in airports. The best systems, like the Plane Train in ATL, have vehicles which arrive every 2 minutes, and run side-by-side the pedestrian concourse, so that boarding and exiting are completely seamless.
    Airports are obviously specialized environments, but the same basic principles apply to cities as well. For example, many Montreal Metro stations are inside the Underground City. In most cities, no one would ever go into a subway station unless they wanted to catch the train. But in Montreal, people are already underground! (In many cases, you can actually see the trains moving from a vantage point well outside the station.) Metro is already mostly driverless; the operators simply close the doors. Unions aside, you could easily imagine automating the door closing, and increasing frequency to SkyTrain/Plane Train levels.
    And yet, rather than paradigm-changing improvements like these, PRT advocates keep trying to make trains into cars on rails. That’s not Steve Jobs; it’s a car company CEO who doesn’t understand that the world is changing.

  15. Wad October 13, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    @Aleks, PRT falls under the rubric of “gadgetbahnen”, a German-sounding slur of technologically complex transportation solutions. PRT, and things like monorail and maglev, fall under the rubric.
    Discussing them only opens up trouble.
    A gripe I have with many gadgetbahn proponents is a certain personality type that gloms onto the technology. Gadgetbahnen are like the Andrew Wakefield of transportation and planning circles.
    Wakefield is the infamous doctor who suggested the link between vaccines and autism. Medical science has come to the consensus that there is no link whatsoever between the two, and further research is suggesting a genetic predisposition to autism-type disorders. Even the medical journal that published Wakefield’s research has disowned the piece in question.
    Wakefield, though, has become fully invested in his wrong idea, and he has a diminished but fervent following among some parents with autistic children as well as other fringe and conspiracist personalities, and this community is bound together by a closed feedback loop.
    You see a lot of the behavior types among some gadgetbahnists, and that’s what makes discussions with them so insufferable. They pop up every so often here, The Transport Politic and other sites, and regular commenters spend time playing wack-a-mole with the posters. Either they are noobs or troll-baiters.

  16. autism lawyer December 18, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

    Steve Jobs had an impressive point of view. While it is important for marketers to know what people want, they should also take the initiative to bring something new to the table. This applies especially to technology.

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