“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
–Henry Ford

Here’s a little known fact about consumer research. Customers are terrible at predicting what they really want in the future. Yet, most surveys seem to focus on this very question.

What would you like to see?
What would you change to make this product better?
Would you purchase this product if these changes were made?

Even though most customers try to answer these questions truthfully, their actions never seem to match their responses. That’s because most people aren’t visionaries. They can’t see the unseen that true innovation requires.

Customer insights are still valuable. But, if you are getting ho-hum feedback from your surveys, maybe it’s time to consider a different set of questions?

The key to finding out what customers really want is to NOT ask them directly.

A better way to predict what your customers will want tomorrow is to observe how they respond to real-life scenarios today.

When formulating a survey, it is far more important to ask questions that gauge how people feel about a given subject. The goal is to understand what motivates or moves them emotionally.

So, instead of asking customers what they would like to see in the future, ask them to respond to their current situation.

What problems or challenges are they facing today?
Why is this a problem or challenge in the first place?
How are they currently solving these challenges?
What frustrates or excites your customers the most?

Once you understand the emotional context of your customers, you can begin to ask deeper questions that gauge how they interpret and respond to your brand.

Do they understand the value proposition of your product or brand?
What elements of your product or brand have the strongest impact?
What do your customers enjoy most—and least—about your product or brand?
How does your product or brand solve their problem?

Predicting what your customers will want in the future begins with understanding unmet needs and solving their most immediate problems today.

Back in Henry Ford’s day, the problem wasn’t people wanting to go faster. The problem was, in New York, horses were producing 1,200 metric tons of manure every day, and horse related traffic deaths were higher per capita than automobile deaths today.

Mr. Ford was simply listening to his customers and solving a problem. You can, too.