No one said they wanted faster horses, they wanted less horseshit

There’s a quote from Henry Ford that is sewn into the fabric of modern experience design. It’s simple, super-quotable, and everyone “gets it”. It goes:

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

There’s a problem though… he never said it. Just like finding out Santa Claus isn’t real, you are having your illusions shattered finding out Henry Ford never said people wanted faster horses. In fact, no one knows who said it, or if it is even a genuine statement as opposed to a handcrafted, semi-patronizing one-liner. It may as well be a statement engineered to start or end meeting-room arguments around customer research.

What Was the Question Again?

So what exactly was the problem that Henry Ford didn’t ask about? Why do we assume that slow horses were even a legitimate problem? People had no concept of cars or jets, so was the spirit of the time that horses were just too slow? Before writing this post, I had never delved into the quote, even though I’ve used it more than a few times. As I think about it now, I am not even sure it makes sense. When faced with transportation woes and lack of innovation today, people today don’t respond with “faster cars”. The speed of horses, or cars, has never been a problem. Of course, it’s just a metaphor, we’re not supposed to take it literally. So what is it trying to teach?

The Real Problem

Since the base premise is around the usage of horses as a metaphor for the “status quo” of transportation, let’s look at it for a minute. Horses have been a preferred means of transportation for thousands of years. The earliest record of domestic horse usage for transportation goes back as far as 2000 BCE. As we built more and more complex, crowded villages, towns, cities, horses became a real problem. Here are some of the things people would have responded with if you asked a mid-late 19th century city planner what he needed with regards to equine transportation:

  • Some place to relocate the 1200~ metric tons of manure produced each day, and someone to do the relocating
  • Some place to stable the 100,000+ horses that operated within New York, and food to feed them
  • Disease
  • Smell
  • Dried manure dust
  • Soaked manure mire
  • Cruelty to horses
  • Horse related traffic deaths

Solving Real Problems

There was another problem; horses and cars aren’t what Ford cared about.

Spurring on Better Questions

The crux of “asking for faster horses” is based in the idea of solving a root problem with something that negates it altogether, and not just swaps out iterative “good enough” solutions that are focused on directly addressing the “what people want” instead of a solution that makes asking the question irrelevant.

Straight From the Horses Butt

All in all, if people in the late 1800’s could have articulated what they wanted when asked, it might have been around solving this disgusting manure problem. If that was the answer, then iteration on manure solutions would have only left them drowning in slightly less shit.

Henry Ford looked at problems people actually had, and came up with new solutions that people couldn’t articulate or conceive of.

Hmm. That’s not nearly as catchy and quotable. Maybe a hundred years from now it will be replaced by an equally misguided quote from Elon Musk regarding “If Elon Musk had asked people what they wanted, they would have said flying cars.”

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
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But before you go…

You should give this article a recommend 👏🏻 or 50, follow me Erik Flowers on Medium (and on Twitter — @erik_flowers).

Fiction author, Sr. Principal Design Strategist at Mural. Everything has a narrative arc, my job is to make it a good one.

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