Futurism: How to Predict Customer Needs like Jobs & Musk
When user-centered design is overrated.
“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them…”
Thirty-six years ago, on January 24th, Steve Jobs launched the first version of the Apple Macintosh. It would be the first in a series of disruptive products, materialized from Steve’s seemingly prophetic sense of vision that helped build the first Trillion dollar company the world has ever seen.
There had been computers before the Macintosh, but they were reserved for geeks and professionals. The reason Apple’s home computer was so successful was that, by the time they launched it, the market had adapted to the presence of computers, but had no way of interacting with them. This wasn’t a circuit board with a visual interface, this was a creativity machine that could fit in your living room. Jobs even presented an entirely new way of interacting with computers, introducing the mouse for the broader public, further emphasizing how the meaning of computing would change.
I spend a lot of time comparing myself to the likes of Jobs and Musk. Not because I compare even a little bit, but because I have a borderline unhealthy drive to figure out what they did differently to arrive at success—not just once, but over and over again. This article is the result of such deliberations.
Throughout the years, a lot of opinions have circulated on the holy grail of product design. Ask any designer today, and they’ll tell you it’s user-centered design and customer focus. Yet, true visionaries like Jobs and Elon Musk seem to have thrived disregarding both. Why is that?
From our perspective, customer feedback will help you validate or improve your product, but to disrupt you need something deeper.
Both Jobs and Musk were blessed with the gift of Vision. They could see what end-users wanted before they wanted it. Luckily for us non-psychics, there are more methodical ways to predict the future.
According to Wikipedia: Futurists or futurologists are scientists and social scientists whose specialty is futurology or the attempt to systematically explore predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present, whether that of human society in particular or of life on Earth in general.
While I think the title “Futurist” is hugely pretentious, there is merit to the process of exploring future contexts, especially as they relate to your Future Customer’s Needs. It is crucial for successful Corporate venturing, as it will dramatically increase your ability to disrupt any given market.
At Bundl, we begin every innovation track with two weeks of research on the client’s company and the market they’re in. In this Deepdive, we are looking for patterns in trends in the market that tell us something about the future state of that same market.
0. Set your Domain
Before you do anything, you need to define in which Market (or Domain) you are going to Deepdive. Usually, this is a combination of two words, e.g., VR & Entertainment. Defining a domain sets the boundaries for your research and helps you filter out irrelevant results.
1. Benchmark the State of the Art
I can imagine you are wondering: When will we get to the good stuff?! To that I say: Patience, young Padawan. First, we will analyze the State of the Art. Meaning, what is the current state of the Domain you have defined in the previous step.
More concretely: We look for best of class examples and case studies within our Domain, and deconstruct them so that we can understand what underlying need they fulfill. Funnily enough, this “need” can differ from the initial intent of the designer.
When Nike introduced their Free Run running shoes, a couple of years back, their goal was to recreate the feeling of barefoot running while offering the protection of a shoe. What started to happen, however, was that people started to wear the shoes as regular sneakers—they were simply that comfortable!
Nike has since introduced the same flexible, soft sole to more casual sneaker models.
When a designer designs a product, they leave clues about how to use it. Its form of language, choice of materials, color, and marketing, all align to tell the same story of what this product is here to do.
We can leverage this fact to deconstruct the why of the product. The way it was intended by the designer, as well as its meaning: the role it came to play in society.
Imagine you are Elon Musk in 2004. You’ve just bought into Tesla because the state of their technology impressed you. Electric vehicles up until then had always lacked the range to be considered a valid alternative to traditional cars, but there’s this hybrid new car in Asia called the Prius that has taken the market by storm in the past seven years. You decide to investigate it more closely.
Apparently, the Prius is popular but hideous. Everything from its rectangular shape, to its interior layout, to its marketing color (silver-grey) tells you this is a boring car—however, it is very efficient, affordable, and it doesn’t break down. (This Prius taxi clocked over 1 million kilometers).
Toyota has positioned electric driving as being the rational option. But is this the way the user sees it? For the answer, let’s have a look at how the Prius was used.
User product interactions shape the sociocultural meaning of your product. When Jobs made interacting with the computer easy, he didn’t just change the physical product.
With it, he changed the meaning of computing at its core. He changed the reason the product existed.
The way users interact with a product tells us a lot about its sociocultural meaning.
In interacting with them, users determine a product’s role in society.
Again, its meaning doesn’t always align with the designer’s original intent, but this is one area where the user is always right.
The Prius quickly became one of the most iconic cars in recent history. It was in such high demand at one point that people would wait as much as six months to get one. Their durability made them a popular option for taxi companies (remember those?), and even California’s A-list celebrities started buying Priuses because they loved them so much.
Needless to say, the Prius became much more than just a rational choice in popular consumer culture. And we, in the shoes of Elon Musk, have started to understand the State of the Art of electric vehicles just a little bit better.
The previous analysis tells us something about the socioeconomic context. Apparently, hybrid (and electric) vehicles had the potential to become cool, not just with the general population, but with the elite as well.
Now I don’t think Elon Musk actually deconstructed the Prius in the way we just did. Guys like Musk and Jobs have an intuitive sense for opportunities like these, and they capitalize on them without fail.
Hence, in 2005, Tesla started the production of the Roadster. Elon knew better than to compete with the Prius directly.
Instead, he built a fully electric vehicle that had obviously learned from the cultural reception of the Prius: Tesla was a lightweight, dynamic two-seater, built for speed and priced at roughly €100.000. It’s meaning centering around the coolness of electric driving, emphasizing acceleration, sportiness, and fun driving.
Considering his debut car was a red convertible, it was clear who Musk targeted with the Roadster.
So we’ve researched the State of the Art. We repeated the Deconstruction process for ten to twenty products and services within the domain, and we feel like we understand their meaning in relation to the sociocultural context.
We have also checked their economic performance (by checking investments raised and sales in recent years), and we know what people are willing to pay.
In some cases, the State of the Art study itself gives you enough of an understanding of upcoming customer needs to arrive at your value proposition, like in the Tesla example above.
But in most cases, your main source of ideation fuel is the Futurism phase.
Now, what guys like Jobs and Musk understand intuitively, is how customer needs arise from changes in the sociocultural context and vice versa. They have a sixth sense for the way society changes, and how this will translate into consumer behavior down the line.
Most of us mere mortals weren’t blessed with the same superpower. Fortunately, there’s a step by step process we can follow to come to the same level of insight.
The steps in the process are:
Remember, the domain is your “search area.” The domain for this phase is the same as for the Deconstruction. For the sake of illustration, let’s take the Apple iPhone. The domain for the iPhone was probably something like: “Mobile Telephony,” or “The Future of Computing.”
For this phase, we will add a year stamp to the Domain. This is your time horizon. For example, “Mobile Telephony” becomes “Mobile Telephony in 2007.”
To predict what will happen down the line, we first need to understand what is happening right now. The end goal is to capture the Zeitgeist; the attitudes people take in relation to a certain domain. So the first step is to observe emerging trends today.
We do this by collecting context Factors. Factors are like the Legos, that—when put together—form the pillars of our future context.
There are four subcategories of Factors:
- Trends: Short-term emerging behavioral patterns (1-3 years). In the case of the first iPhone, two of the many, many factors may have been: People are now spending more money on texting than on calling; People do x% of their internet browsing on mobile phones.
- Developments: Changes in the context that are non-behavioral, such as: The development of faster and faster mobile internet technologies. Typically, developments lead to user behavior or Trends. For example, The increase in CO2 in our atmosphere, and the increasing awareness thereof (development), have led to the fact that people are more conscious about the environment in their buying behavior (trend).
- States: Context factors that are pretty much fixed, or have been so for a long time, but that theoretically could change. For example: The Netherlands is a democracy. Or in relation to the iPhone: People use technology to assist them in their day-to-day lives. A simple heuristic to evaluate States is the Lindy effect, which states that if something non-perishable has existed for x years, it can be expected to exist for at least that amount of time more.
- Principles: Principles are fixed and cannot be changed. Mostly these are laws of nature, scientific truths, and undisputed facts. Again an example for the iPhone: People are social beings who crave attention and validation from their peers. Or: Giving people a limiting set of rules increases their creativity.
Factors can be found on the internet, in magazines, in scientific articles, textbooks, and most importantly the designer’s own observations. Ideally, you’ll have over one hundred in total (twenty-five per category) and to ensure their diversity: collect them from every vertical of society (social, psychological, economic, evolutionary, biological, technological, etc.).
As you are collecting factors, you will notice patterns starting to emerge between certain factors.
Almost naturally, Factors will form Clusters (or Macro trends) that hint at higher level behaviors and needs in future society. This is why the clustering of factors is essential to the process.
Clustering is about connecting the dots. As factors entangle and interact with each other, they produce a collective outcome that is bigger than the sum of its parts. That is why we can group factors with the same overarching quality.
A simple example might be:
- Trend: People do x% of their internet browsing on mobile phones.
- Trend: People are downloading software more and more instead of buying it physically.
- Development: The amount of information on the internet is growing by x*% annually.*
- Development: The development of faster and faster mobile internet technologies.
- State: People use technology to assist them in their day-to-day lives.
- Principle: Giving people a limiting set of rules increases their creativity.
- Together they form the cluster: The Internet of Things (which in 2007 was not a thing yet, and may have been one of the triggers that would become the App Store).
We form five to fifteen clusters, each of them shedding a little bit more light on a specific Future User Need. Clustering is one of the most essential steps in the process because they are so defining for our image of the future context.
Now that we have our Clusters, we begin to see the Matrix. Often, our clusters do not all point us towards the same future. Opposing forces emerge between or within clusters, and to account for them we create Dimensions.
By physically putting opposing clusters opposite each other, on the ends of an axis, we can start to envision a range of futures. In most cases you can make do with two crossing axes, creating four quadrants, but in some cases, you might need three or more.
To continue our case study of the iPhone: we created a cluster “predicting” the Internet of Things. However, another cluster may point to an increased awareness of the negative health effects of computer use, causing some people to limit their screen-time.
By putting them opposite each other, together with some other clusters, we may be able to define the axis as “Technology Supported.
A second axis might have something to do with people getting used to computers, interacting with them more intuitively, versus the technology behind them becoming more and more complicated. We may call this axis “Intuitiveness.”
The two axes now create four Quadrants, which each hint at a different Attitude towards Mobile Telephony in the year 2007. Even though one of the Attitudes will be dominant, each of them exists in your Customer of Tomorrow, changing according to their whims and surroundings. Explicitly note that they are therefore not Personas.
As Venture Builders, we are not objective participants in this process. Venture Builders have human parts too (though the other half is the stuff of Gods), with their own subjective view of things. This shapes the process of Futurism throughout.
So, instead of pretending to be robots, we take into account the Venture Builder’s gut feel and align with the client’s strategy and personal preference as well.
Enter the Vision Statement.
The last step of the Futurism process: the Vision Statement, is also the most defining for the value proposition-to-be. It is the Attitude and therewith the Future Scenario we are choosing to endorse with the new Venture.
We, therefore, choose one of the quadrants, or two adjacent ones, to focus our Value Proposition Sprint on.
The format we use for our Vision Statement is as follows:
In the domain of [domain] in [year], we want people to [quadrant].
In the case of the iPhone, I imagine Apple’s Vision Statement would have been something like:
“In the domain of Mobile Telephony in 2007, we want people to be able to communicate in a Technology-Supported and Intuitive way.”
The Vision Statement is usually the final part of our Deepdive.
However, some individual Trends, Clusters, and accompanying Future User Needs are the creative firepower in our Value Proposition sprints. They give us a tiny flash of insight, a hint of what the future might be like, and an intuitive feel of what our Customer will need in a few years’ time.
And we have to say, sometimes it makes us feel pretty damn superhuman.
Like Steve Jobs. Like Elon Musk.