As a researcher, it’s a little dispiriting to hear the constant refrain that Steve Jobs achieved his remarkable string of successes without any market research. And it’s positively frightening to think that thousands of less-talented entrepreneurs will blindly follow Jobs’ example of working without a net, only to come crashing down to earth.
But it is worth setting the record straight. Apple has used market research, though perhaps not in the traditional sense of the word (much to their credit). As recently as May of this year, they launched the Apple Customer Pulse panel among consumers who own Apple products. And while they may not have used outside researchers to help them develop new products, they appear to have had a rigourous design process built around the needs of the consumer. In Jobs’ own words, “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want… we figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it [emphasis mine].” And then there were those iPhone prototypes that Apple employees carelessly left at bars – presumably artifacts from internal product testing. All of this counts as market research, if only by another name and outside the box that market researchers typically use to confine their craft.
More accurately, Job’s legacy is that most traditional market research is useless when it comes to designing new products—after all, consumers can only comment on those things for which they have a frame of reference. But it’s also true that research that digs beneath the surface of what consumers say, and focuses on understanding their needs and motivations can inspire the development of innovative and successful products. Maybe Jobs and Apple could have used more of that kind of research when they designed some of their less successful offerings… like Ping and Apple TV.