People often believe that consumers can't tell you what they want. For this reason, firms tend to think its ok to just go ahead and manufacturer products or launch web sites without any research.
This is so fundamental that the idea forms the basis why people think marketing is about creating needs, rather than fulfilling needs (see our E-Marketing article on this topic).
Most of this flawed thinking is due to a misunderstanding of how to conduct research on consumers.
To understand this, consider that you asked consumers, say back in 1995, whether they wanted to buy books over the Internet. Of course they would have said "probably not." You could interpret their response as evidence that people don't want the Internet as a shopping vehicle, but then couldn't it also be that consumers didn't know what the Internet was - so how could they respond in any positive way?
The same is true for computers. Often people believe that consumers could never have said in any marketing research study that they wanted a computer. But again, this is due to a flawed way that people tend to think about marketing research. By the way, if you asked people long ago whether they wanted some way to correct typing mistakes or more easily conduct "what if" scenarios on their handwritten spreadsheets, you likely would have heard a resounding "yes!!"
You can see that consumers can't tell you what they want if you focus on your product. But if you focus on the benefits of your solution, any consumer can is able to make a thoughtful and meaningful response.
So how do you identify what people want when often they can't identify a specific product themselves? Here are some simple ways of thinking about marketing research that will help you better understand the potential (or lack of potential) for your product or service.
Watch What People Do In Real Situations - in other words, don't make the customers come to you, but go to where customers would actually use your product.
Allen Weiss founded MarketingProfs in 2000 and continues to provide strategic direction for the company as CEO. He's currently a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California and teaches mindfulness in companies at InsightLA.