It’s not entirely coincidental these two subjects of innovation and research are the golden thread behind much of what we do.

Working with Citizen’s Advice earlier this summer we helped them use insights to improve how citizens find support in these uncertain times. Jeremy recently hosted a podcast episode that serves as a good introduction to design research, while I also hosted a panel on Designing for Innovation with guests from IDEO, Mind The Product, Babbel and Southern Water, to discuss and challenge the prevailing winds of an increasingly industrialised world of design that keep us all mindlessly chained to the non-stop hamster wheel of incremental improvement and uninspiring marginal gains.

At Clearleft we believe great ideas start with understanding human behaviour. We also believe many great ideas fail because the gap between coming up with a great idea, and having sufficient understanding of how to make it succeed with customers, is both vast and widespread. Most organisations struggle to close this gap between concept and reality, given the radically different skillsets, mindsets and behaviours that need to be reconciled.

It’s generally accepted wisdom that to understand human behaviour in the context of a business environment – buying, selling and using products and services – you need to understand your customers or audiences through research. But it’s very rarely a commonly held belief that customer research can lead to innovation. Confidently expressed opinions from innovation consultancies often espouse the opposite in fact: Leave the eureka moments to me and my muses is their mantra. This probably says more about the insecurity of such consultants than they’d care to admit; after all, the belief that great ideas can originate outside of the mind of a solitary or collective creative genius discredits the value proposition of their entire business model.

And this is the point where we inevitably start ambling down the well trodden path about horses and cars. One of the most legendary quotes to discredit the idea that customers have any possible value to add to the innovation process is Henry Ford’s now infamous, if apocryphal:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.
(Not) Henry Ford

It’s a great soundbite that has no doubt decorated the slides of many a desperate 'Innovation 101' deck. This tiresome cliche has been weaponised as the ultimate mic drop to silence pesky customer-centric types about what they could possibly know about innovation. But we rarely pause for a second to question the wisdom of holding up Henry Ford as a bastion of innovation, regardless of whether he ever actually said it or not.

Henry Ford didn’t invent the car. Or the assembly line. Or the market for the automobile. What he was good at was “stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap”. Ford undercut the competition on price, accelerating the appetite for a more affordable and reliable horse (it was barely faster after all) which unlocked and enabled mass market adoption. However this came at a sacrifice.

To deliver this strategy he locked the Model T design into production as a rigid template that had to be adhered to in order to keep the assembly line fast and the product cheap. “Any colour… so long as it’s black” was a convenient guise to mask their strategically inability to provide customisation to customers. To give Ford his due this deliberate constraint had led to his initial success, but ultimately became his Achilles heel and competitive undoing. At the start of the 1920’s, Ford were responsible for the sale of almost two thirds of all US-made cars. Throughout the decade, as Ford stuck rigidly to his inflexible manufacturing process, they steadily lost market share to GM and Chrysler to the point that by 1930 they were responsible for just 15% of the same market.

Not entirely coincidentally, during this time rival Alfred Sloan’s General Motors (GM) had launched a considerably more customer-centric campaign of “a car for every purse and purpose” that was the exact opposite of Ford’s one-size-fits-all strategy. It helped catapult GM to the top of the industry in the US, which they held onto for the next 70 years or so. Conveniently, we don't hear many innovation experts quoting Alfred Sloan.

Like most bad arguments the “customers can’t tell you how to innovate” one is built on the premise of a badly drawn and highly flammable straw man: that research is just asking people what they want.

Research has nothing to do with asking people what they want, and everything to do with the art of uncovering a mote of insight in a heap of trash.

Just as it would be silly to believe the research process is one where a simple question posed to a customer leads directly to a simple solution that you bring to market, research also isn’t a linear or binary process where research goes in and insight pops out. Research is a highly skilled specialist discipline that requires deep interpretative skills and an open mind. That’s why, in my opinion at least, the best researchers are actually those that think more like a designer than a data scientist; they have the ability to hold competing and often contradictory concepts in a space of possibilities for as long as possible, without judgement on one over another. Analysis can’t guarantee insight any more than Artificial Intelligence guarantees consciousness. It’s just not that sort of mechanical process unfortunately.

Which brings us back round to those innovation consultants, creative geniuses and tech jerks, of which presumably Ford was one of his time. I have to wonder, in my more empathic moments for billionaires joyriding in space while the world starves, burns and drowns, do they dismiss the value of research on similar grounds as the case I’m making in that role’s favour? Is their stereotype of a researcher closer to a data scientist than that of the entrepreneurial innovator, whose godlike wisdom, in their mind at least, holds exclusivity over intuitive hunches, inventive brilliance and visionary imagination?

Ironically, 100 years on from Ford’s slow, customer-sidelined demise they now have d.Ford, who self-proclaim to use “human-centered design” to “drive human progress through empathy, creativity and design.” Sound like innovation to you? It does to me. Funny how great ideas keep reinventing themselves.

Here’s to those faster horses then.

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