Most executives will instinctively prefer to have the benefit of some market research when making important decisions about their product lines. It’s a rational way to behave.

On the other hand, there also is a reason to be careful about such research. People frequently provide answers that actually are not correct, in part because memory is not perfect.

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They say they will do things they don’t, and say they don’t do things they actually engage in. The other big problem, which Apple understands apparently better than any other company anywhere, is that people cannot give realistic answers to questions about whether they like, would use, would want or would buy something they have no experience with.

All of that provides good reasons to pay close attention to what people actually have done in the past, as that provides the best predictor of what they will do in the future. But the rule of thumb is not foolproof.

Apple, given its beliefs, does not take surveys when deciding to build products. It daringly tries to figure out what people want, even when those people do not seem to know they “want” the new products. Not many companies actually behave that way, because it is dangerous. How many product managers or executives would defend a major product launch that was not driven by research on what prospects said they wanted, would buy, or preferred?

Surveys, in fact, though valuable and useful, might simply be better suited to process improvements and line extensions, where potential users have actual experience with a product.
Breakthrough products probably are rarely uncovered using surveys, simply because respondents cannot evaluate products what they don’t know, and have no experience with. Apple’s truly unusual tactic is to ignore surveys and focus on unknown needs. Few companies try that approach. Perhaps that is why Apple so often creates breakthrough products and whole new product categories.

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