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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  • Well said. Personally, I go to a barber because I know I want a “Disney Compliant Cut” which makes sense if you live in California and are familiar with Disney’s requirements for hires that are visible at theme parks. (My barber is.)

    A variation on the question is to ask where the customers’ business is heading. What’s the big initiative for next year? The year after? One customer I frequently dealt answered the question with comments about online video. He then went on to ask for various features that would make his current life “cooler”. We built what he needed for the video application and lo and behold, by the time we were done he needed the feature. It was like we read their minds…

  • Great analogy! I have been waiting for years for a hairstylist to suggest a style for me.

  • Mike Boudreaux

    Or even worse… Being like the hairstylist who looks at the hairstyle that you walk in with and using that as the sole basis for how they cut. While this is lowest risk and likely to give you something that is acceptable, the result is the same thing that you’ve had before and not something new. Why would you return or pay extra? It’s also an interpretation of the mess I walked in with and not the vision for what I need. Don’t give customers what they already have, give them something that is different and that meets their needs better.

  • Agreeing with everyone else, fantastic post. It’s also why I tell my hairdresser to do what she’s in the mood to cut and thinks will look good for a fairly arts-oriented student!

    Never thought about the similarities you point out, though. Great observation.

  • Good article, but not sure I agree with everything. Sony Walkman and the Dodge Caravan were amazing innovations for their time.

  • @Ilia, that was my point. The Caravan and the Walkman were “stylist” ideas — not ideas that the customer asked for, but ideas that were done in spite of customers’ wishes.

    In these cases, the PM said, “how much time do you spend commuting by yourself on public transport?” or “how big is your family and how much time do you spend driving them around?” From that, they intuited the need for a portable entertainment device or a large-capacity vehicle a soccer mom could drive like a car.

  • @Alistair, I think you’re misrepresenting the Innovator’s Dilemma. There are two kinds of innovation: disruptive and sustaining. You’re talking about disruptive innovation, which is great, and that’s certainly what most startups care about. But huge amounts of money are made on incremental innovations, which depend on focus groups, statistics, and just doing the same thing efficiently over and over. Giving a couple of examples about failed focus group-based marketing isn’t fair to all the other marketing efforts that were successes *because* of their focus groups.

    To follow the hairstylist analogy: once I find a hairstyle I like, I want to repeat it over and over. Many hairstylists are good at that… probably many more than are good at selecting and recommending a new look from scratch.

    Both ways are good. The danger is in trying to make a “disruptive innovation” while using a sustaining methodology.

  • @apenwarr Well put. Yes, this is about disruption; to continue the analogy, once you find a style that works, small, iterative improvements are what becomes important.

    I guess this blog’s focus (startup acceleration) sways my thinking away from the “new, improved scent” that consumer packaged goods companies slap on their shampoos each year 😉

    In many ways, it boils down to how the focus group is conducted. One interviewer might say, “what should your clothes smell like?” (dumb) while another says, “what attributes would make you feel good about your clothes?” and “tell me about experience you associate with freshness or cleanliness?” (smarter)

  • Nicole

    As a stylist I do not agree with the first statement at all. If you have to sit someone down and ask them about their jobs and hobbies you’re going to spend a lot of your scheduled time to figure out how to mesh the two together. If their job and hobby hairstyle doesn’t match with their face shape then tell me what I’m supposed to do? “How do you like it?” is a good starting point for any stylist with a new client. One of the reasons a stylist asks how someone likes to wear their hair is simply to get a general idea. Do you just need a trim? Are you looking for a new style? Those are the questions we would also ask. More often than not, when you find a stylist that suits your needs/wants you normally don’t want to have to change your style every time you need a haircut. Besides, the “how do you like it” question is usually a one-time question… Think things through.