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Managing Director

2 min read

Explaining user research to skeptics (and Henry Ford)

Paper is a user research and design agency. Over half of what we do is user research and that means we spend quite a lot of time in meetings with clients explaining what user research is, and why it is valuable to people.

In our meetings with clients there’s usually a mix of different levels of understanding. Some people ‘get’ what user research is straight away, others are keen to understand it better, and occasionally there’s one or more people in the meeting who are skeptical.


Skeptics are a good thing, they challenge us to be clear about the process and the benefits of user research. In some cases the skeptics have done some research in advance of meeting us and invariably they will come across a quote by Henry Ford (the American industrialist who started the Ford Motor company).

Henry Ford misquote if I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses

There’s a couple of problems with using this quote:

  1. Ford probably never said it, there’s no evidence to suggest he did.
  2. It’s not what user research is, in fact it’s exactly what it isn’t’.

User research is…

Let’s be clear, user research is about understanding out what people ‘need’. User research is not about asking people what they ‘want’. What people say they want when asked directly and what they show you they need when you observe and listen aren’t the same thing.’

Sticking with the Henry Ford misquote, “if I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.

Instead, what if skeptics like Mr Ford tried to understand why people need horses? If the underlying need is about getting from A to B quicker than walking then we can open up many more possibilities e.g. cars get people from A to B quicker, but trains can be quicker than cars, and planes even quicker still.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles movie poster with Steve Martin and John Candy

By using the Henry Ford misquote, skeptics suggest that asking people what they want may stifle innovation. Whereas we know that doing user research to understand the needs of users encourages us to think openly and innovatively about how to solve problems.

The point is, that by understanding someone’s underlying needs, in context, we are able to ask questions that lead to truly innovative solutions… not just faster horses.

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