Develop Blockbuster Products Without Market Research. Really???

Steve Jobs As a fan of all things Apple, I picked up the Steve Jobs biography this week to see what I could learn about its iconic founder.  As a market research professional, I was very interested in understanding more about Apple’s famous claim that they do no market research.

There was some hand-wringing, and definitely some indignation, among market researchers after a pre-launch press meeting for the iPad where Jobs was asked what consumer and market research Apple had done to guide the development of the new product.  “None,” said Mr. Jobs. “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”  Was it possible that other organizations would take that message to heart and move away from the collection, analysis and development of consumer insights?  Did it mean that traditional market research was irrelevant?  Can everyone deliver blockbuster products now with no consumer insights?  Probably not.

While it may be true that Apple didn’t conduct conventional research before the iPad was launched, there’s definitely evidence that the company actively seeks insights when they develop their products.  For example, part of the success of the iPad was attributed to the AppStore, which had hundreds of readily-available tools for the new device.  Yet back when the iPhone was introduced, Mr. Jobs did not want to enable third party applications at all.  The Apple board, listening to the developer market, convinced him otherwise.  Listening, interviewing and polling as part of product development are all part of market research, even if Apple doesn’t define it as such. 

Mr. Jobs himself talked about his own role in the development process as a sort of focus group leader – “when a good idea comes…part of my job is to move it around, just see what different people think, get people talking about it…get different people together to explore different aspects of it quietly.” Going back to Apple’s early days, Jobs mentioned doing “a lot of studies and tests” to develop their computing innovations such as the mouse-driven point-and-click interface.  And Jobs’ development approach, as he described it (“We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too.”), has a lot in common with the market research process.

In the high-tech sector, product managers know that asking customers what they want next is a great way to manage customer service and voice of the customer programs (and Apple does conduct customer surveys to get feedback on products and other input).  But it’s not the best way to innovate new products because customers don’t really know what is possible.  (As Mr. Jobs said, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”)  However, a great way to understand the path to innovation is to uncover consumer and customer needs, attitudes and problems.  This is where solid market research practices come into play, for high-tech and just about every other industry.

Not every industry lends itself to Apple’s methods of product development, and not every company can depend on a single visionary leader.  Most organizations are looking to develop new products and services that meet (or exceed) demand in a way that brings value to customers and shareholders alike.  Research tests and validates ideas to provide the business indicators needed to make sound decisions – especially in the current economic climate.  Whether a CPG company is conducting a concept test to validate a prototype that has been in development for years, or a high-tech company organizing its roadmap around feature optimization, research offers valuable input on these business decisions.

The market research industry is undergoing significant change with the rise of social media tools, big data (the confluence of survey data, customer data and social media listening data), and other trends.  Even companies who supposedly do not conduct market research are likely to participate in one of these new methods.  Perhaps as the market research industry learns to “Think Different” even Apple may choose to conduct more formal market research again.  Steve Jobs was apparently a big fan of challenging the status quo.  Here at MarketTools, we are taking that lesson to heart as we consider the new and exciting hybrid research opportunities.  Join us.
 


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