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Why Listening to Customers is Not an Innovation Strategy

October 28, 2010

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

The first thing a marketer should do is listen to customers, right?  If the goal is innovation, Mark Cuban says the answer is no.

In an April 2010 blog entry, Mr. Cuban wrote a post titled “Why You Should NEVER Listen to Your Customers.”  He quoted Alan Kay who said that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

This is consistent with two other innovative thinkers – Steve Jobs and Paul Graham.  Here’s what they had to say:

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.” – Steve Jobs

For [a product] to surprise me, it must be satisfying expectations I didn’t know I had. No focus group is going to discover those. Only a great designer can.” – Paul Graham

When designing a product, it’s easy to think that customers will lead you to the next great thing.  If you can just get a group of them into a room and ask enough questions, you’ll discover the next great product.

According to these four innovative thinkers, this is not the case because people don’t know what they want.  They know what they like or dislike about what they currently have, but they can’t predict what they will want next.

If companies want to be innovative, they need good designers and they need to invent the next big thing themselves.  This is what Apple does.

Apple invents the future.  With the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, Apple took each product category to another level.  Instead of making the next standard mp3 player, smart phone, or tablet PC, Apple invented the future.  They defined the market.

If companies want to catch up with Apple, focus groups aren’t the answer.  Hiring great designers and spending more time and effort on innovative thinking will lead to the next great product.  For innovation, listening to your customers is not the answer; inventing the future is.



Mark Cuban, Why You Should NEVER Listen to Your Customers, Blogmaverick

Steve Jobs, Quotations Page

Paul Graham, Quotations Page


  1. JMP permalink

    We have made alot of mistakes, so maybe we are doing something. Keep moving ahead, something will work.

  2. Paul permalink

    This is exactly the case with the evolution of smartphones. Ten years ago, who in the world thought about using the camera on a phone to scan barcodes and search for products within your area? Certainly not any of us customers. We just wanted a way to send an email with our phone. That’s what we would’ve asked for. Not barcode scanners.

    I recently purchased a Droid X primarily for the screen size. I have since discovered a plethora of uses for the phone I had never even thought of. And there’s certainly more yet to find.

    I do wonder though, does this principle assume that the innovator has already thought of all the things the customers might think of? Or does it rather imply that the customer’s thoughts just aren’t that useful?

  3. Paul, this is a great decision. So much so, that I answered it with a new post. Check it out in the “trackback” below.

  4. Dan permalink

    The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. -George Bernard Shaw

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Listening to Your Customers is Important for Incremental Improvements, Just Not for Innovation « Joseph Wesley's Blog

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