Steve Jobs says no to market research…but should you?

I was reading through an article in the New York Times from earlier this week, and I stumbled onto this little tidbit about Steve Jobs, man among boys:

Shortly before the iPad tablet went on sale last year, Steven P. Jobs showed off Apple’s latest creation to a small group of journalists. One asked what consumer and market research Apple had done to guide the development of the new product.“None,” Mr. Jobs replied. “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

Well, this same week Apple reported their blowout quarterly results – they moved 7.3 million iPads in the fourth quarter alone. Yowsa. Is Steve onto something here? Did his refusal to engage in market research lead directly to the development of such a ‘magical’ device? And if it did, should you be following his lead and go off of your ‘gut feel’ when it comes to product and marketing decisions?

I think an important thing to note is that the iPad basically created a new category of device (unless you think of it as just a huge iPhone), so I think the quote above on how consumers don’t know what they want makes a lot of sense for breakthrough products like these. If I’m designing my transmogrification machine, and I ask you whether you think it needs one or two USB ports on it, I probably shouldn’t be putting too much stock in you answer. In cases like these, you’re asking your customers to use their imagination, rather than tell you about their experiences and what they like or don’t like about the products they use today.

To be honest, we had a bit of the same problem when we conducted preliminary research for GutCheck. In our initial concept test, we presented potential customers with the idea of a real-time DIY qualitative research platform, and people didn’t really understand what we were talking about. They didn’t know how they would use it because it wasn’t a direct replacement for any of the market research tools at their disposal.

Eventually, we got the insights we needed by focusing on their frustrations with their current methods for generating market research. We heard about the problems with the current research methodologies out there, especially the long delay in getting back insights from a focus group and the lack of deep insights from quantitative surveys. And a common complaint was that due to time and money constraints, they would often have to take the risk of making a decision without any customer feedback.

Based off of all that, we decided there was a market need, but we didn’t get there by asking the market directly if they would use our product.

OK, back to Steve Jobs, and his ability to read our minds and give us products that we didn’t even know we wanted but that we now cannot live without. One more quote from the same article:

Steve Jobs has this extraordinary ability to see into the future and instinctively see what people want,” said Michael A. Cusumano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. “He’s done that consistently, in a way no one else has.”

I think our MIT professor hits on it nicely – Steve Jobs really does have a unique ability to anticipate the marketplace. So, with his talent, it’s probably OK that he forgoes market research. He has proven that he doesn’t need it. But as a variation on an old quote goes: “I knew Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs was a friend of mine, and you sir, are no Steve Jobs!”