How To Do Product Research Like Steve Jobs

by Joseph Putnam

Last updated on February 19th, 2018

The late Steve Jobs is known for mentioning his lack of faith in focus groups. He once said:

“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.”

His insight is useful, but a lot of people take it to mean that Jobs didn’t believe in listening to customers. That’s not the case. Here’s what else he had to say on the subject:

“That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”

So what’s the deal? Should you or should you not listen to customers?

Let’s find out.

The difference between “self-reporting” and “actual” behavior

The reason Mr. Jobs didn’t believe in focus groups is that most of the time what people say they’ll do isn’t what they’ll actually do. This is the difference between “self-reporting” and “actual” behavior.

Let’s look at an example.

Company A is trying to decide whether or not they should build a new product. Before they start, they want to find out if people will buy or not, so they decide to do focus groups and surveys.

Through their research, they find out that everyone really likes the idea and says that they’ll definitely buy. It’s a super cool idea. Everyone loves it.

So the company goes into development and builds the product. After it’s finished, they release it into the market, but a funny thing happens. Hardly anyone buys. Everyone said they would, but when it comes time to actually part with their money, people aren’t willing to do so.

What happened?

What happened is that there was a difference between what people thought they wanted and what they actually wanted, and the real test comes when people have to pull out their wallet to buy something. It’s easy to say that you will ahead of time, but will people really do it when the time to purchase comes? Maybe, maybe not.

This is why actual behavior is more important than self-reported behavior and why experiments are more useful than focus groups and surveys.

But this brings up another question: Does this mean you should never listen to your customers?

Absolutely not. Let’s talk about why.

When you SHOULD listen to your customers

Instead of just thinking that listening to customers is a bad idea, we need to look at some situations where they should be given an ear, and this has to do with pain points and frustrations.

Company B is in the same market as Company A and is interested in building a similar product. However, instead of asking people what they want, they ask what frustrations they have with the current products. They ask questions like:

  • What’s your biggest frustration with this product?
  • What are you struggling with the most?
  • What issues are you having with your current business model?

By asking these questions, Company B identifies pain points, and addressing these pain points can be used to identify where there is an opportunity for innovation. It can also be used to optimize website copy and selling points.

After doing these focus groups and surveys, Company B develops a different product than Company A. Once it’s launched, they have more success, not only because they listened to customers in the right way, but also because their sales copy is more in tune with the frustrations that people have. Customers visit their site and think, “Wow, it’s like they’re reading my mind.” Why? Because they asked the right questions and knew when and how they should listen to customers.

So the next time you’re thinking about doing a focus group or survey, take a minute to decide what you’re trying to figure out. Are you hoping that your customers will tell you about the next big product innovation, or are you attempting to learn what frustrations they have and where their pain points are located?

Based on Mr. Jobs’ advice, you’re better off searching for an answer to the second question.

So what about you?  When do you listen to customers and when do you not?



Get updates on new articles, webinars and other opportunities:

Joseph Putnam

Joe Putnam is the founder of ConversionEngine, an agency that builds conversion funnels which help clients generate more profit from PPC. He’s helped organizations increase SEO traffic 769%, cut their cost per acquisition in half, and 12X their leads from AdWords. He also co-wrote two in-depth guides with Neil Patel: the definitive guide to copywriting and the definitive guide to conversion rate optimization.


Comment Policy

Please join the conversation! We like long and thoughtful communication.
Abrupt comments and gibberish will not be approved. Please, only use your real name, not your business name or keywords. We rarely allow links in your comment.
Finally, please use your favorite personal social media profile for the website field.


Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Shane says:
    September 27, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    Steve Jobs was a legend. His intelligence in computers and marketing has made Apple a very successful company today. I think learning from his traits would be of great help to fellow marketers out there. Thank you for posting this online. It is of great help. Great article by the way Joseph!

  2. September 19, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    Excellent post Joseph. Thank you.
    The adoptation of self-reporting results as the basis for a business decision to proceed with the development of a product is often related to that business owner’s personal view of what the customer should need. He’s convinced that this new gadget is the best thing since sliced bread and when he does his market survey he’ll most likely only hear what he wants to hear.
    You’re absolutely right, knowing the difference between self-reprting and actual behavior is the key to success with a new product development.

Show Me My Heatmap

Really easy to understand the user behavior with the new @CrazyEgg reports! @qubitTV #UX #prodmgmt

Francisco Mingote


What makes people leave your website?