Is it time to put Henry’s Horses out to grass?

Written on 1 April 2014

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Whether or not Henry Ford really said this, the quotation is nonetheless attributed to him for posterity; and there’s no doubt it’s a powerful statement. Simply asking people what they want is a poor recipe for real innovation. For more than a decade, I have heard design professionals using this quotation in sales pitches, training programmes, blogs and articles. But the analogy has never worked for me. It has always seemed illogical and dubious, and I wonder now if it is time to retire a tired and inaccurate cliché.

Why would people ask for faster horses when the car already existed?

Karl Benz invented the first automobile in 1885 and began commercial production in 1888. Two years later John William Lambert was the first to produce a car in America. Ford was actually late to the party, starting work on an experimental quadricycle in 1896. By the time Ford was selling cars, they had been commercially available in Europe and North America for years – another blow to the authenticity of the “faster horses” statement.

And if the statement is authentic – if people were looking to get out of the horse-drawn slow lane – Ford may well have missed a different commercial opportunity. He might have made his reputation breeding speedier steeds.

Asking the right questions

When we design innovative solutions we often have to deal with two types of end-user requirements:

Obvious (explicit) requirements: clearly articulated improvements, amendments or extensions. For example, a faster horse, a cheaper car, more memory, more screens, louder speakers, and so on.

Latent requirements: unmet needs that people fine difficult to express, write down or articulate.

Most people, when invited to contribute to the “innovation” of a product or service, end up simply describing an evolution of something familiar – their contribution to the process is limited by what they know. A conversation about the “possible” is difficult enough; and a structured conversation about the “impossible” is, well, nearly impossible. Researchers, designers and other “proxies” intervene to develop an understanding of what people really need. It is this understanding that drives innovation; not the users themselves.

On the strength of the apocryphal quotation, Ford seems to have understood this. So perhaps the “faster horses” pitch is pure spin: Ford telling us that, rather than relying on the customer, he knew he had to come up with his own solution.

We don’t know how he got there. But Ford was certainly one of the great innovators of the 20th century. And, given that true innovation rarely comes in a sudden, serendipitous moment, it is likely that he followed a research-based, iterative design process.

This is the way most innovative companies propel the world forward.

As long as it’s black…

So Ford didn’t invent the motorcar, but he did make cars affordable for the mass market. He had the vision to adapt production line techniques to the manufacturing of automobiles, moving them from a slow, hand-crafted process to fast, efficient, cookie-cutter fabrication.

The Ford Model T was in production between 1908 and 1925. During this period it only saw a few revisions. Stability – not ongoing innovation – made production cheaper.

Another famous quotation attributed to Henry Ford is: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour he wants so long as it is black”.

In fact, between 1908 and 1913 the Model T was available in different colours. But from 1914 to 1925, every car that rolled off Ford’s production line was black. Black paint dried faster, decreasing production time.

Ford’s great innovation was a process that could churn out new cars faster and cheaper than anyone else.

That’s not to say his design process wasn’t also innovative. In 1903, after three years of experiments with engines, a few versions of quadricycles, and six years of failing to produce a commercially successful vehicle, Ford founded his Motor Company. He then spent an additional six years testing prototypes, starting with the Model A (a name that was reused in 1927) and working up.

He carefully considered how people were using their cars, and the context of their use. He identified a need for cars with strong all-terrain capabilities. As the Model T became more popular, other companies started to sell kits, modifications and conversions. One of the most successful was a kit to adapt a Ford motorcar with some of the field capabilities of a tractor.

What do you get if you cross a zebra with an investment banker?

When Karl Benz was working on his first cars, America and Europe were already witnessing innovation in transport. In fact, for more than a century, horses had been only one of several options. The American John Fitch designed and built a steam rail locomotive in 1794. By 1804 England had a full-scale working railway. When Karl Benz was working on cars, France already had 6,000 locomotives, and Benz’s native Germany had more than 9,000. It was also Germany where, in 1881, Werner von Siemens opened the first electric tram line in the world.

In 1889, when Lionel Rothschild – the 2nd Baron – was 21 years old, he started working at his family bank in London. By this time Benz was already selling cars; while Ford was still dreaming about them. Rothschild, much wealthier than either of the other men, was also toying with alternatives to the horse. But Rothschild wasn’t looking for more speed. He was in search of a different kind of innovation, to make a different kind of statement.

Rothschild wanted to prove that he could tame a wild beast for domestic purpose.

And when he parked his carriage outside Buckingham Palace to show off his new team of zebras, he set something of a trend.

Other, less wealthy Londoners followed suit. In 1912, a tradesman was photographed on Clapham Common in a pony-chaise drawn by one of Rothschild’s tamed beasts.

Nobody had asked for tame zebras. But, even as new models of mechanical innovation began to dominate the paved roads of the capital, many Londoners continued to enjoy making a different kind of statement.

Innovation comes in all flavours, and is arrived at in different ways. Rothschild was arguably no less innovative than Ford. But where his innovation was designed to demonstrate the superiority of man over beast (or to show off, depending on your point of view), Ford’s innovation changed the world; not because he invented an alternative to faster horses, but because he designed a solution rooted in an understanding of our real-world needs.

As we enter a new golden age of design, let’s eschew Ford’s soundbite but follow his example. Our new audience is more mature and more emancipated than Ford’s. Business is ready to embrace design as a force for innovation in sectors where technology has dominated for decades. We’ve been waiting for this. And we have exciting, compelling stories to tell of innovation as a product of an evidence-based, iterative, creative process – repeat cycles of exploration, improvisation, learning and validation – rather than simply a reaction against what users would ask for given the chance.




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