How can product managers overcome the fact that they’re not Steve Jobs?

by Michael Bamberger
July 24, 2015

There’s no shortage of rationalizations for product teams that want to avoid implementing a robust strategy for generating user insight early and often. From regulatory restrictions to limited time and resources, I’ve heard them all. But one excuse in particular that strikes me is the reference to organizations that innovate successfully without presumably involving user feedback. Apple is the classic example.

While it’s true to an extent that Steve Jobs did eschew traditional market research, to conclude that he didn’t listen to customers is preposterous. His quotes are often either taken out of context or now universally recognized as gospel by UX researchers, years after the fact. In an interview with Inc., he commented: “You can’t just ask customers what they want and try to give it to them.” When speaking with Business Week, he famously quipped, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Today, both sentiments are ubiquitously incorporated into the experimentation process, as practitioners have in fact learned that users are notoriously bad at conceiving solutions to their well-articulated problems.

At Apple’s WWDC 1997, Steve Jobs unequivocally remarked that “you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” So if he didn’t conduct traditional market research or focus groups, how was he able to invent record-shatteringly popular products?

First, Apple “either redefined or created product categories” which is “not the domain in which most businesses play.” So the circumstances were undeniably different. Further, in the same interview mentioned previously with Inc., Jobs expanded, “We have a lot of customers, and we have a lot of research into our installed base. We also watch industry trends pretty carefully.” Apple’s access to customer behavior was and is virtually unparalleled. Last, Jobs recruited world-class designers who were also representative of their products’ users. They installed a meticulous and exhaustive process to ensure their problems were real and that the products they designed were solving them as efficiently and effectively as possible. Combine these factors with Steve Jobs’ unique genius, and you’ve got a recipe that’s hard to replicate elsewhere.

So unless your situation meets similar criteria, it’s probably best not to look to Apple as a model for how your organization can innovate. Fortunately, there are a number of practices that mere mortal product teams can implement to overcome many of the challenges of not being Steve Jobs. Here are three:

Observe behavioral data to substantiate self-reported data

Indeed, as Apple has known for decades, there is a large disconnect between what people say and what they actually do. In one of his epic TED Talks, Malcolm Gladwell explored why it took until the 1980s for food producers to create a chunky tomato sauce. Despite it’s immediate popularity and obviousness in hindsight, consumers never requested chunky tomato sauce in focus groups because “the mind knows not what the tongue wants.”

Gladwell elaborates:

If I asked all of you, for example, in this room, what you want in a coffee, you know what you’d say? Every one of you would say, “I want a dark, rich, hearty roast.” It’s what people always say when you ask them. “What do you like?” “Dark, rich, hearty roast!” What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast? …somewhere between 25 and 27 percent of you. Most of you like milky, weak coffee. But you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want that “I want a milky, weak coffee.”

Researchers have come to describe this phenomenon as ‘psychological distance.’ Product teams that want to overcome this barrier “should consider moving from hypothetical questions to techniques such as asking customers to choose and use prototypes.” Prototypes can communicate proposed value propositions to generate reliable feedback much more effectively than surveys or focus groups and much more efficiently than engineered products.

That’s not to say that surveys are useless – well-crafted questions with meaningful formats (e.g. conjoint, maxdiff, and forced rankings) can provide great insight into perceived value. But self-reported data must be substantiated with observed behavior. Not only do simulated prototypes marginalize user bias and inaccuracies, if utilized effectively they can also provide a framework by which product managers can evaluate and benchmark new product features iteratively.

Foster a culture that is conducive for innovation

Just because you weren’t born with a spiritual passion for calligraphy and a deep, intuitive understanding of the future of computing doesn’t mean you can’t innovate. With the right team and culture, you don’t have to be Steve Jobs. Empowering your team to experiment without fear begins with making a clearer understanding of the user the ultimate objective. Following that, failure becomes synonymous with learning.

Often, not finding a ‘winning’ concept can be perceived as a failure. But as long as your experiments provide greater understanding of your target market, every experiment is a success. In fact, learning what your customers don’t want brings you that much closer to knowing what they do want. The product leader’s job then becomes to ensure that you learn as fast as possible, as every failure is a lesson that brings you closer to success.

The Harvard Business Review illustrates this well so I’ll reference an extended quote:

Innovation is at heart a process of discovery, and so the role of the person leading it is to set other people down a path, not to short-circuit it by jumping to a conclusion right at the start. To lead innovation, you don’t have to be the next Steve Jobs, nor do you need to guess the future. Rather, you must carve out the mental space within which the innovation process can be carried out…

Most people are terrified of what uncertainty might do to their careers, so it’s crucial to communicate that some uncertainty is a good thing. Demonstrating vulnerability can be effective. Acknowledge that even the innovators in the trenches—not just the efficiency-oriented organization—find high-uncertainty problems to be hard, messy, and nonlinear. Send the message that this is normal and that it’s OK to feel apprehensive…

Essentially, the leader’s role shifts from providing answers to posing questions. When a manager or anyone else on the team says, “I think we should do X,” it’s the leader’s job to ensure that the next question is, “What’s the fastest way to run an experiment to help us know whether we should do X?”…

Now, failure equates with learning, and learning is something that is encouraged in order to achieve success. And the creativity required to do so isn’t innate in some people and absent in others. On an episode of This is Product Management, Mona Patel argues for organizations to treat creativity as a muscle that can be strengthened with repetitive training and confidence. Numerous stakeholders collectively flexing their creative muscle can be a powerful force for innovation.

Tap into multiple channels

Steve Jobs may have locked himself in a room with his team to design the iPhone, but that’s not because he didn’t value diverse perspectives. Just the opposite. He specifically hired people he knew would challenge the status quo and butt heads with him. One of his favorite slogans after all was “Think different.”

Customer insights don’t have to just come from within your product team. The customer experience doesn’t begin and end with the product; it’s a journey that covers everything from how the customer learns about your product to the customer support process. If you’re not taking the entire picture into account, then you are still missing vital pieces of the puzzle.

And you don’t always have to leave the building to collect these insights. Getting out of the office is great – but sometimes the only trip you need to make is down the hall. A couple commonly overlooked channels for user insight can be tapped into from within your office.

Your sales team is the front line of communication with potential customers in your target market. Simply due to the shear volume of personal interaction they have with prospects, they are likely to have gained valuable insights about needs, objections, and behavior. Whereas your sales team has an ongoing relationship with prospects, your customer service team is the front line of engagement with actual users and customers. They know the ins and outs of the product – where users get stuck, what features are broken, and most importantly, what could potentially solve recurring issues.

If you want to form holistic and comprehensive user narratives, you’ll need more than just your product team to discover patterns and continuity of user needs and behavior. But you certainly won’t need Steve Jobs, however convenient that could have been.


Michael Bamberger

Michael Bamberger is the founder of Tetra Insights, a technology that maximizes the value of qualitative data. Previously, he co-founded Alpha.