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I want a faster horse!

It is not uncommon for different people to misquote the true motivation behind a famous quotation once said by Steve Jobs after the launch of the Macintosh. Basically, it's as follows:

“Some people say, "Give the customers what they want." But that's not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, "If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, 'A faster horse!'" People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

In the past, only one or two options existed for each need, which were further limited by availability and accessibility. We are now surrounded by a wide array of information thrown at us courtesy of screens that adorn every corner, of every room we inhabit. The recognition and description of our needs are transformed as a consequence.

We music lovers, for instance, in the late 1990s, always spent time looking for new artists and collecting their work on cassettes stuffed in the rickety flaps of giant speakers. My personal memories are of the complicated process of naming the top and bottom on the cassettes in order to avoid writing over previously recorded material. My creative self would often wonder how I could fix it.

In response to the question of how to solve this problem - I would offer up the following ideas: making sure I carry my cassettes and not just the player, higher recording speeds, and larger storage capacity, which translated into my next purchase: the Disc Man. The Disc Man was the same product, but with new problems. Several years later, I upgraded to a device that I can now call a transition device in the landscape of music technology - MP3 players - which had their share of issues but also caused us to think differently and wonder about new possibilities.

So, as a consumer, is it possible to bring all of these problem outlines together and put them all in one powerfully structured package? There is only one thing we can say: it should be simple and convenient. A closer look is needed at what it involves.

Back in 2000, an idea morphed all our music problems into a butterfly that led the music industry into change for the better somewhere in a fruit named company's pristine white hall. Even after the Newton failed despite research efforts, Apple still believed that experience and testing are crucial to its products. As they began small, they knew - everybody loves music, and since everyone loves music, there is a very large market all over the world. It knows no bounds. By tracking all aspects of consumer behavior, they ensured that their design and marketing process is informed by the insights provided by the internal consumer groups. That was not the end of the story. This information was further augmented with customer research done for teens and young adults as the first segment they surveyed - wanting to create their own music entities and willing to experiment with new markets and products. Based on these two inputs, it does not mean that Henry Ford or Steve Jobs declared consumers dumb in a world where they are referred to as kings, but instead that they know that consumers cannot possibly explain to them what is going to fix their problem, but just that they have them.

The 23rd of October 2001 saw Steve Jobs host an event on Apple's Infinite Loop campus. In just over six minutes and 35 seconds, the screen behind Jobs flashed a new product name. Steve explained that we now have access to over 1000 selected songs in our pockets thanks to the "iPod."

Apple did much more than wrap a great piece of technology in a gorgeous design. Taking good consumer research and placing it in a good business model was the key. Apple changed the way people downloaded digital music by making it convenient. By combining hardware, software, and service, the company created a groundbreaking business model. Using Apple's approach was so successful, Amazon too had replicated it in reverse in its Books and Kindle business model: Amazon gave away "e-books" (low-margin iTunes) to lock in purchase of the "Kindle" (the high-margin iPod). Apple also catered to artists whose work was plagued by piracy, for example on Napster. iTunes is not just an attempt to create a music ecosystem, but also one that is legal and supportive. A new model of value was created, providing consumers with a brand-new level of convenience.

This breakthrough solution never occurs to most of us. From a host of problem solvers, we ride on the wave of solutions targeted at us, and we select the ones that resonate with us and our environment. Occasionally, while riding these waves, the solution isn't the right one, but we keep going and expect the rest to work out differently. As if that wasn't funny enough, our personal data is spread around the internet so that our problems can be solved better and smarter. The advent of consumer research consultancy facilitates the quality of our consumption, while on the other hand, it compromises our privacy and control of it.

Ultimately, we don't know the answer, only the questions. Consumerism is driven by people answering questions we have yet to ask or have yet to arrive at. This does not validate our ignorance, it just confirms our growth, demands and expectations.


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