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Design For Yourself, Not For Your Customer?

On August 24, 2011, Steve Jobs resigned as the CEO of Apple Inc. Whether or not you like his products, it’s hard not to be fascinated by the black turtleneck-wearing visionary. Over the course of his career, Jobs has said many insightful and profound statements about technology, PCs, business, the future, and life in general. One interesting perspective he had was around design.

“We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build the Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.” (source here)

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” (source here)

”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.” (source here)

As one trained to cater to the customer, I’ve always emphasized the importance of user testing and focus groups. Perhaps a bit too much at times. Naturally, I was a bit surprised to learn of Jobs’ perspective.

But I couldn’t help but be a little inspired, because Jobs is not talking about ignoring your customers; he’s talking about having a certain level of passion and conviction in what you do. I became a little introspective, asking myself questions like:

1) Do I believe in my work?

2) Am I emotionally invested in my work?

3) Do I want to innovate?

4) Do I want the product to look good?

5) Do I want to surprise my customers?

6) Do I take shortcuts?

I think Steve Jobs’ attitude can and should translate to government. It’s about going beyond the minimal requirements and putting out something you’re passionate about. You don’t have to change the world to make a difference. Just put forth your best effort, think outside the box a little, and deliver the best product you can with the resources you have. Don’t just do things for the sake of doing things; do it because you believe it adds value to your customers.

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Jeff Ribeira

Love those quotes! I agree that these concepts often fly in the face of what we’re taught about traditional customer service, but I’m not sure they are meant to supplant those concepts, but supplement. You can still give customers everything they want, but with a healthy dose of the things that they never even knew they wanted/needed. I’m also reminded of the classic Field of Dream quote, “If you build it, they will come.” If you completely invest yourself in a product or service, you will naturally have the highest possible standards, and people/customers will therefore be drawn to that.

Peter Sperry

Henry Ford said it best — “If I had set out to give my customers what they wanted, I would have built a faster horse.”

Patricia Paul

When I first read the tagline for your blog, I was dubious–I am glad that I read on. What you all are saying is so true–be passionate about what you do for the best reasons (hopefully knowing that it will benefit) and you can’t help but build what people are going to want! You’ll ask a bunch of questions, you’ll care about the outcomes and timelines and you’ll likely be building it with a lofty (in this case, great) goal. If you truly believe in what you are doing, people will flock to you to try to understand what makes you so happy and fulfilled.

Love the Henry Ford quote!!! It’s that little nagging in the back of your mind that says, “Wait, don’t settle–I believe that there is a better solution than just what general concensus has derived–let me think on it and ask other people that care about this the way that I do.”

Jay Johnson

Hold on, a recent HBR article suggests that Henry Ford never said that quote. It goes on to critize his inflexibility to changing customer demands.


The thing about the Steve Jobs like innovation is that there is a huge risk of failure. Steve knew that, but wouldn’t have it any other way. So know what you’re getting yourself into. While 90% of the time you’ll fail, there’s a huge upside if you do succeed. Keep the cost of failure low, and capitalize on the wins when get the chance.

Jon Lee

Interesting… I don’t know enough about automotive history to have an opinion but the article makes a nice distinction between disruptive vs iterative innovation. Yes, there are definite risks to innovation. Many people forget the dark days of Apple when PCs dominated the market. I can’t confirm this, but I remember reading that Steve Jobs lost a few billion in a single quarter. And of course, he was fired from Apple in the 80s.

Patricia Paul

OK-so Ford didn’t say that exactly. However, to use the automotive example to illustrate the difference between adding a few/or many accessories or optional items as compared with changing the whole essence of how people were able to move around and get from point A to point B. I’m really glad that Henry Ford perservered with his singular vision and that other visionaries saw that it was going to be important to add options and choices and made it possible for me to have a red car if I wanted. It takes both kinds of visionaries. My question would be this–would we still be trying to paint horses different colors and add better sound systems to our horses if Henry Ford hadn’t risked it all on the Model T.

Some people have ideas that change the very essence and being of a process and some people have the vision to add the “extras” and make sure that everyone can get just what they want. It takes both kinds to make a great product or service and it takes both visionaries to be really excited about their creations!

Jon Lee

Good question, Patricia. How about this for an example: does government need to keep publishing lengthy academic white paper reports that just sits on a shelf? It’s something that we’re so accustomed to doing, but the rest of the world has moved on. What if you took your 75 page report, took out the superfluous words, and turned it into a website?

Jay Johnson

Well said Patricia! In Lean terminology, they are referred to as

  • Kaizen – small continuous change
  • Kaikaku – radical or exponential change

Kaizen would be putting that 75pg doc online instead of printing it out. Kaikaku might start by asking, “Does anyone even read this? Can we get rid of it?” The result could completely alter the report’s form or even existence.

Patricia Paul

We may be defining history here gentlemen! I’m sure over the weekend, this topic is going to stew in our brains and one of us is going to come up with the next big change to white papers!

Jay Johnson

The fact that you tried to improve something, followed through with it, and were successful is way more important than finding a word for it. Great job, and don’t stop now!