Steve Jobs Can’t Read Your Mind, but He Doesn’t Have To

Updated December 3rd, 2015.

Steve Jobs is a lot of things, but he’s not a mind-reader. I mention this because article after article tells us:
“For years, and across a career, knowing what consumers want has been the self-appointed task of Mr. Jobs” (New York Times)
“Jobs’ greatest gift hasn’t been for invention as much his uncanny ability to anticipate what people want” (The Associated Press)
“He is perhaps singular in his ability to know what people want” (The Christian Science Monitor)

I say bah.

Steve Jobs can’t tell what people want. But he doesn’t have to. He knows what he wants, and he knows that when he shows it to you, you’re probably going to say “I want that.”

I am willing to bet that you NEVER sat around thinking “You know what I want? I want some raw fish. And wrap it in seaweed. And make it expensive while you’re at it.” And then someone introduced you to sushi and you said “I want that.” You didn’t know you wanted it because you hadn’t thought of it. And if the person who introduced you to sushi had asked you what you wanted to eat you sure as heck wouldn’t have said “raw fish, wrapped in seaweed, very expensive.” No chance– because it would never have crossed your mind.

Henry Ford said “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse.'” Steve Jobs has cited that quote a few times, usually when someone asks him why Apple doesn’t use focus groups to help design products. More to the point, he’s put it this way:

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

That makes sense to me. The point is that a lot of us don’t really know what we want– but show us something, and we’ll know whether we want that particular thing or not. The hard part is in the imagining. There is nothing magic about this, and it happens in other fields, notably writing (hardly anyone can start with a blank page and put something good on it, but almost everyone can tell whether someone else’s writing is worth reading). Steve Jobs has done a great job of putting ideas on paper and turning them into products. And, when he shows them to us– and that includes me– we all say “I want one!” Actually, I usually say “I want two!”

Knowing that people WILL want something (once they see it) is different than “knowing what they want.” Lucky for us, Henry Ford and Steve Jobs didn’t ask us what we want– because if they had, we’d all be riding a faster horse, and though horses don’t have charging ports for iPhones it wouldn’t matter because the iPhone wouldn’t exist.

Copyright 2008-2022 Christian Boyce. All rights reserved.

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