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

Henry Ford (allegedly!)

The ‘faster horses’ quote attributed to the Ford Motor Company’s founder is so often cited it requires no further introduction. [1] 

Like many oft-cited quotes, it’s doubtful whether it was actually said by the attributed person. But, nevertheless, it retains the power to divide a room between those championing user-centricity and those that believe true innovation only comes from the minds of design visionaries.

As a user researcher, I feel somewhat duty-bound to side with the former. But the reality is that both sides could learn from the issues raised by the other.

On the vision-led side, they’re right to point out that users should not be expected to architect their own solutions. But a lack of user understanding renders any success as being more luck than judgement. As Henry Ford actually did verifiably say: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”[2]

The battle to increase user-centricity has and continues to be hard-fought. But, on the side of those championing it, there’s sometimes the danger that good intentions become inflexible naivety — with the research findings blind to the needs of the client organisation and the realities of implementation.

Within research, it can sometimes feel as if ‘insights’ have been given near-mythical status as great human truths waiting to be uncovered.


At the heart of this criticism, there’s a debate around the nature of insights and what makes a research finding ‘insightful’. Within research, it can sometimes feel as if ‘insights’ have been given near-mythical status as great human truths waiting to be uncovered. Here, researchers act as prospectors searching for valuable nuggets of insight gold to mine.

However, the reality is more like the humbler and altogether less lucrative practice of farming.

Rather than pure minerals simply waiting to be found, research findings are constantly shaped by the environment they emerged from and the methods used to extract them. Also, as with farm produce, there’s often a limited window of time that the commodity remains valuable.

I use the word commodity knowing the connotations and, yes, in the modern world research data collection has and will continue to be commoditised. But having the ingredients doesn’t mean a meal is ready to be served and, at the risk of over-stretching the metaphor, only through a process of preparation

and presentation does a research finding become a useful insight. So, to deliver true value, a researcher must be both a farmer and a chef.

If we take the famous ‘faster horses’ quote, any competent researcher would see that the insight from this apocryphal user need is that speed is important rather than a particular attachment to the horse itself. They would also, rather than consider this as a single eureka moment, probe further to capture valuable additional information such as why speed is important and how this future experience might ideally look and feel.

How user-centric is our research?

The truth of a users’ thoughts, feelings and behaviours are not — on their own — always insightful. As researchers, something we’re perhaps reluctant to accept is that when ‘faster horses’ is used it’s more often not that the person denies the merits of user research but is saying that we’ve failed to make it relevant to what they and other stakeholders want to achieve.

To successfully translate research findings into insights, a deep understanding of the users must be combined with an equally deep understanding of the client organisation. An irony of research is that, as researchers, we’re often slow to display the same empathy and desire to get to the heart of the issue when looking at our own client’s needs.

Insights provide the direction rather than a neat map to simply be followed.

Clients can sometimes be reluctant to share their views and hypotheses for fear that they will ‘bias’ the process. But being aware of and limiting bias is a fundamental skill of the researcher and more comes out of user research as it is fed with more commercial and operational context.

Whilst critiquing many organisations’ lack of user-centricity, I’m not sure how reflective we’ve been in thinking about our clients as users of our research. From my experience, the best insights are based on an integrated understanding of the issues — seeing them from a user, stakeholder and (where relevant) employee perspective.

Yes, users’ needs must be the compass that guides everything the organisation does. But they provide the direction rather than a neat map to simply be followed. As researchers, the value we bring is in bridging the client’s world with their users and we owe it to our clients to be as enthusiastic about their needs as we expect them to be about their users’.

[1] Patrick Vlaskovits, ‘Henry Ford, Innovation, and That “Faster Horse” Quote’, Harvard Business Review (29 August 2011):

[2] Scott Faranello, ‘Dispelling the myth of “faster horses”’, p.2–13 in Practical UX Design (April 2016)

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