Inside the Consumer Mind

Understanding the rational and emotional foundations of consumer behavior

How Steve Jobs Knew What You Wanted

Can market research predict consumer response to new technology?

When Steve Jobs was asked how much market research was conducted to guide Apple in its incredible string of new product successes, he responded, "None. It isn't the consumers' job to know what they want."

On the other hand, a little research among your friends will tell you that consumers know exactly what they want. For example, a lot of people I know are very clear that they want Apple's new iPhone 4S. In fact, consumers walk around every day with a mental shopping list of things they want.

But Jobs' answer was referring specifically to the points in time when the iPhone, iTunes, the iPod, and the iPad were still concepts. His statement expressed his belief that market research would not have helped in the development of these products because consumers could not envision that they would want these new technologies bundled into the products that he had in mind.

Market research is very good at determining consumer preferences among products that currently exist. This is because the attributes, features and benefits of these products are represented in our minds and associated with emotions and other attitudes which motivate our likes, desires and behavior. Researching consumer preferences involves exploration of how these existing representations are used to make evaluations, comparisons and judgments.

Most "new" products are not really new at all. They are revisions of products that already exist. iPhone 4S is not a new product, it is a revision of existing iPhones and smartphones in general. The category of smartphones, cell phones enhanced with digital media, has become an established mental representation in our minds. So market research could have accurately predicted what I learned about my friends - that they want the iPhone 4S.

But what about products based on new technologies? When the iPhone was still in its conceptual stage, established representations in the consumer mind would have biased their reactions toward comparisons with existing cell phones. However, the essence of the iPhone is not its "cell phone-ness." The iPhone product experience is derived from the imaginative integration of digital technology. Consumer satisfaction with the iPhone has little to do with making phone calls.

Support for Jobs' belief that consumers are not capable of understanding their response to products based on new technology is found in the book When Old Technologies Were New, written by Carolyn Marvin, Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School. Marvin points out that throughout history people have conceptualized the technological future only as "a fancier version of the present."

If our ability to imagine the future is limited by the mental representations of technologies and products that currently exist in our minds, how did Steve Jobs do it?

First, his mind did not have these constraints because of his experience with and knowledge of the technologies. Unlike you and me, Jobs was an expert. The representations of these new technologies and their potential applications were firmly established in his mind, with the associations that enabled creative thinking. Studies of "expert" minds in fields ranging from mathematics and chess to the interpretation of x-rays by radiologists reveal that the difference in these minds from the average person is a breadth and depth of mental representations of relevant information and associated patterns and relationships.

The second factor is an intangible. Even among experts, some are more creative than others. They can look at the same information as the rest of us, but see concepts and solutions that use this information in unique and novel ways. Obviously, Steve Jobs was very creative.

Steve Jobs could see things that the rest of us could not. As a result, Apple's line of computers plus the iPhone, iTunes, the iPod, and the iPad is one of the most impressive collections of new product hits in marketing history.

As brilliant as Jobs was, however, his view of market research did not match the breadth of his other thinking. Consumer reactions to new technologies and abstract concepts can be discovered by exploring perceptions at a deeper level. This can be accomplished through the application of methodologies designed to elicit constructs and emotions rather than the traditional research measures of preference.

Peter Noel Murray, Ph.D., is principal of a consumer psychology practice in New York City. Dr. Murray's specialty is the psychological drivers of consumer behavior, with emphasis on emotion.

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