“If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.” Supposedly Henry Ford said this in relation to building his car. It’s a quote that has been repeated to me many times over the years as justification for not spending too much time conducting user research or usability testing.

In many ways it’s a solid justification. If we ask people what they want, they’ll (in general) only be able to think in terms of what they already have. They’ll not show us the way to a revolutionary new product or service. At best their answers can help us deliver small, incremental improvements to existing products or services. At worst, they may ask for something that will make the product or service worse in the long run.

But, the arguement is flawed because it misunderstands the intentions behind user research and usability testing. It assumes we want to learn what users want and will stop there. When in fact the point of both exercises is to understand why users want those things.

“How can we improve your horse?”

“I’d like it to be faster.”


“Because I could get from A to B quicker and spend more time with my family / working / visiting friends / etc.”

The insight in that conversation isn’t about horses. It’s about use of and the value of time. Ford’s cars didn’t replace horses because they were faster, they replaced them (eventually) because they were more reliable and helped people spend less time travelling and more time doing things they valued.