In The Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto, he laments of his fellow economists, "if economists wished to study the horse, they wouldn't go and look at the horses, They’d sit in their studies and say to themselves, ‘what would I do if I were a horse?’" Remarkably, many people in product suffer a similar affliction, and will spend hours at a white board trying to guess what a user will need rather than simply having a conversation and listening to them. Why? Ego and mythology.
Listening is much harder on the ego than most people consider. Listening well requires three attitudes that tend to create stress. The first attitude is patience. Someone has to create time and space for a discussion, and, having set aside valuable time for this discussion, they have to let the other person talk freely. It's not obvious that something will come out of this activity; a free discussion is not about getting to the point. You have to ask a good question and then listen, patiently.
The second attitude is accepting that you have something to learn. If you sit patiently listening, but inwardly assert that you already know what you're being told, you will miss the insights that can really deliver value. The third attitude is to acknowledge incorrect assumptions. This is often the hardest to overcome. When someone has an idea about the need for a product or service, they often internalize it.
After internalizing the idea, the success or failure of the idea feels like a personal success or failure. But to be truly successful, a product or service must be about a user or customer, not the creator. People don't buy a product or service to satisfy someone else's ego; they buy because they need or want something for themselves or their organization.
The myth of the lone creative intellect that saw a future that the simple user couldn't grasp is a powerful force in the realm of product. People who believe in this myth will often cite the apocryphal quote attributed to Henry Ford that if he asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse. Or they will talk about the vision of Steve Jobs blinking the iPod into existence. Interestingly, believing in this mythology will also alleviate the stress of being a good listener. One will not need to listen, only tell.
The truth is that there is no evidence that Henry Ford ever said such a thing. Henry Ford knew that horses were costly and time consuming. He knew that they had limited workloads and required rest. He knew about manure. Everyone knew about trains and steam engines, and many, many people were working on a mechanical replacement for a horse. Ford sold his first horseless carriage in 1896, in 1920 he sold almost 1 million. Ironically, with all the success of Ford's production systems and sales, Ford did neglect the desires of his customers, and General Motors led by Alfred Sloan conducted customer research and responded to the findings, which led GM to overtake Ford in the 20's and never looked back.
Steve Jobs does have a famous quote, “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.” Both these statements are true, but they don't exclude understanding the customer. Another, less well known, statement by Jobs was “really great products come from melding two points of view—the technology point of view and the customer point of view. You need both.”
Listen to your customers. They will make you successful.