January 15th, 2009

Bad product managers are like hairstylists

in: Anticipate, Create

The first thing someone asks me when I go to get my hair cut is, “How do you like it?”

This is the wrong question to ask. It presumes that I (not the expert on hair) have a preference that’s relevant.

(Sure, we’re creatures of habit, so we may well have a preference, and hey, we’re paying for it so we get to choose. But bear with me.)

What a stylist should be asking is questions like, “What do you do for a living?” and “how do your co-workers dress?” Perhaps they’d ask, “Do you have time to towel and blowdry it in the morning?” Or maybe they should wonder, “Do you play sports like wrestling in which hair length is a factor? Are you on a team that needs helmets?”

A good stylist would try to discern a pattern of needs (which the customer knows a great deal about) and then applying their domain expertise (cutting hair) to choose what’s best. In many companies, the people in charge of product direction are like stylists. Which causes lousy product decisions.

I believe that you shouldn’t ask a customer what they want. We’ve all heard stories of innovation — from the Sony Walkman to the Dodge Caravan — that were rejected by consumers. On the other hand, companies like Apple, who famously omit focus groups from their design process, do well.

That doesn’t mean there’s no need to survey. It’s just that you shouldn’t survey for what people want. That’s boring. You should survey for what people need, which they often can’t articulate. Companies that ask their customers what they want fail to innovate. It’s a problem famously described in The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clay Christensen

In Apple’s case, this means looking at the emergence of broadband; the preference for buying songs one at a time; the frustration with tapes and CDs that don’t store enough music; the broader adoption that can be gained through easy user interfaces; and the feasibility of an Internet client/player storefront.

Maybe that’s why the folks in Cupertino have such tolerance for weird hairstyles.

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