Lego figure in pieces representing breaking problems down into first principles

You Shouldn’t Ask Users What They Want

Learn why building what your customers ask for is a recipe for failure

You are human-centered and customer-centric when it comes to managing your software products. You learned that requirements should come from listening to the customer and delivering what they want. Building relationships with your customers is the panacea of previously failed projects.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — Henry Ford (maybe)

Building the features your customers tell you they want may be better than building based on your own guesses, but it’s still a road to failure.

The presumed quote from Henry Ford demonstrates that peoples’ initial reaction to define a solution is rooted in what they understand. The concept of a car wasn’t even a thought. They understood horses.

It is our nature to start with what we know and look to improve upon it. This stifles innovation.

In product development, there’s no shortage of solutions looking for a problem to solve. We are innately solution-first thinkers. As a product manager, you must look past the requests and first reveal the root problem.

In my experience, people often don’t know what they want or need until they see, touch, and experience something. I’ve also learned that the problem they think they are solving is often not the right problem to solve, thus the proposed solution misses the mark.

This is why you should never ask users what they want — you will end up building the wrong thing.

The process to uncover the real problem or opportunity is simple, yet rarely exercised. The results are eye-opening.

Let’s explore how you limit your solutions, how you can enable broader thinking, and how you can uncover the right problem or opportunity to solve by asking better questions.


Functional Fixedness Limits Your Solutions

The quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” demonstrates people’s initial reaction to define a solution based on what they know. This is known as functional fixedness.

We tend to start with what we know and look to improve upon it. This stifles innovation.

There’s a classic example used to prove this point.

You have a candle, some matches, and two metal rings. Your task is to join the two rings together using only the items mentioned. How do you do it?

Whenever I pose this challenge to people, the common response is to use the matches to light the candle and then drip the melted wax over the rings to create the bond. That’s using the items the way they are functionally intended to be used, the way we understand them.

What if, instead, you removed the wick from the wax and tied the two rings together with the wick? Wouldn’t that be a better solution? This brings us to first principles thinking.


First Principles Enables Broader Thinking

First principles is about breaking things down into their most basic parts and re-imagining how to use them.

In the candle and rings scenario, when you break down the candle into wax and a wick, it allows you to re-imagine how to use the parts.

Functional fixedness limits your thinking and options, first principles broadens your thinking and options.

“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.” — Elon Musk

You can apply this principle to non-physical things, too. The key is to first understand the facts. What do you know to be true?

Every problem-solving endeavor begins with an initial problem definition. It is your current perspective. I often find the first problem statement is not really the root, or best, problem to solve.

The 5 Whys is a technique I use to peel back the layers a bit to learn more about what I really need. It doesn’t have to be five, but the idea is that you keep asking “why” until you uncover the heart of the matter.

Staying focused on the core problem, and staying away from solutions, you leave the door open to better ideas.

When exploring solution alternatives, it’s easy to become married to your ideas, and look for ways to defend them. I recommend you look for ways to disprove them as the best solution. In this process, you will either validate them or find better options.


The Answers Are in the Questions You Ask

My kids learned early on that words matter. They would ask something like, “can we go to some place?” My response was, “yes.” As they learned that this wasn’t agreement or specific enough, they’d try something like, “can we go to some place now?” My response was, “yes.” Eventually they learned to ask, “are we going to some place at some time?” That elicited a different answer.

There’s a big difference between “can we” and “are we” — words matter.

The questions we ask determine the answers we get. To uncover the root problem or opportunity, to uncover the facts, you need to ask better questions.

As a product manager, you must place solution ideas to the side and first reveal the root problem. The questions you ask are critical.

Anytime a solution is proposed I ask, “What problem are we trying to solve? What outcome is expected by doing that proposed solution? Is that going to address the real need?”

The ensuing conversation and series of questions peels back the layers to uncover the root problem or benefit. I start with first principles, use the 5 Whys technique, and work my way up from there. Most often, we end up with a different proposed solution because we identify a better problem or opportunity to solve.


Final Thoughts

Your customers may start with solution ideas. You and your team might be inclined to start there, too. Asking “What problem are you trying to solve?” early in the conversation is a game-changer. The quicker you can pivot the discussion to the problem space, the better.

Great ideas don’t always provide value, nor address the real problem or opportunity. Running with those ideas without fully exploring the problem will often lead to wasted time and effort as the solution fails to address the real issue. The result is missed opportunities and benefits.

To break away from functional fixedness, use the 5 Whys technique to break down the need, ask better questions, and apply first principles thinking to re-imagine your options. Do this and you’ll be on your way to building the right things for the right reasons.


I write about strategy, business, leadership, product development, and Agile. Challenge what you know. Get short weekly insights in your inbox — sign up on this page

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