5 Things Steve Jobs Taught Us About Customers


I will admit it. I was watching Jobs on Netflix yesterday. While admiring the amazing performance of Ashton Kutcher (did Jobs really walk like that?), I was constantly reminded of the great mind that redefined customer/user experience today. This was a guy who swore by minimalistic design, be it the iPod, the iPad or his presentation slides at a time when gadgets and computers were being designed for engineers and geeks.

I was attending a roundtable a few weeks ago at Enterprise Connect and a design company executive was talking about all the things that were wrong with Apple’s design. It is easy for us, today, to pick holes in something that we could see, hold in our hands and use. But remember that Jobs designed in abstract, was able to visualize something that was non-existent and beyond the comprehension of ordinary people and even designers like the person who was on stage criticizing him. In the bargain, he created a market, destroyed a few companies (Nokia had about 70% share of the mobile handsets market at that time) and amassed a cult-like following. All thanks to his laser-focus on customer experience.

Small Things Matter

Some months back, I read a behind-the-scenes story on how Marissa Mayer‘s decline came about in Google. The article said Google’s lead designer Doug Bowman quit the company because he was tired of “debating minuscule design decisions.” The last straw apparently was that they were wrangling over 41 shades of blue in order to find the right one for Google’s search landing page. I see a similarity between Jobs and Mayer. They both cared about these ‘small’ things because from a user’s perspective these were anything but small.

Customers Need to be Comfortable with It Before they Use It

In a recent customer demo of a collaboration product, I heard a focus group participant say that the product looked similar to a videoconferencing system. My heart sank. Video has for long been a clumsy dinosaur that is too complex to use. I am sure you would agree with me if you had tried to dial-in to a video room some time or the other. Far from plug-n-play. And when it comes to UX, things have not changed much in the last 20 years. That is how quickly change comes to this industry.

Jobs believed that if “people were scared of something, they wouldn’t touch it.” Computers from HP and IBM in the good old days were clunky monsters that scared people away. Jobs wanted something simpler and sleek that ‘ordinary’ people would love to use. He put technology in our back-pockets, literally.

No Market Research Will Tell You What Customers Want

I have seen companies spend tons of money on focus groups, ideation and customer research and still come up with a product that fails to impress customers. Remember New Coke? Market research was one of the biggest factors behind Coca-Cola launching the New Coke.

Jobs was widely believed to be a skeptic of good old market research methodologies.

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” – Steve Jobs

Jobs was not alone. Henry Ford also said “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

While I am not subscribing to this in entirety, I would agree that blindly relying on market research to answer your biggest product design questions can lead you the New Coke way. You need experts, visionaries and innovators as well as customer feedback to nail it.

Customers Know When they are being Ripped Off

Just because people buy from you does not mean that they do not know they are being short-changed. They could be still coming to you because their choices are limited. Remember Motorola Rokr E1, the first phone to run iTunes? The E1 would allow users to store only 100 songs at any given point of time. The product saw lower sales even with a vigorous marketing campaign and died a natural death when the iPhone was released in 2007, delighting users with unlimited storage for songs, videos and photos.

Start from the Customer Experience and Work Backwards

Despite the unfair bashing he has received at the hands of his critics for being patronizing to his customers, Jobs had a lot of respect for them. He knew that no product can survive in this fiercely competitive industry unless the customers endorse it by using it diligently. In order for them to use it, the product needs to be attractive, simple and ‘honest’. If your customers don’t use it, it is dead, be it the Motorola Iridium or Apple’s own Newton.

Despite my recent negative experience with Apple, I do hope the company continues to foster his vision around customer experience. As an ardent Jobs fan, it is the best thing that Apple could give me.