This topic always gets a lot of press and it is truly covered in just about any business book these days. In fact the Disruption perspective offers the suggestion that a product is hired to do a given job, so you need to understand what the customer is trying to do and then start figuring out what how to best solve that problem.
Typically, people start with the solution. Engineers, designers, programmers have an idea for a solution a product that they think people will like because they find the solution to be a cool idea. So without consulting true customers through interviews they do other “market” research which may or may not really ask the right questions because they might not truly understand the problem that they are truly trying to solve. A solution might sound good and people might say they are interested in it, but if it truly doesn’t address their problem. This is why the Lean Canvas is powerful, because if forces you to truly confront the problem your solution is trying to attack.
The point isn’t that you or anyone else know better than your customers, you truly don’t. You might have an idea that could be something that your customers could use. You don’t truly know. Having confidence if vital for success, but you truly need to test that through interviews and planned conversations.
The iPhone wasn’t successful because it was truly novel It really wasn’t, the phone wasn’t able to handle 3G, it didn’t have copy and paste and many other features that Blackberries had for years. Things that standard businessmen needed. However, that wasn’t the market Apple was going after initially. They were going after high value customers that were not having their needs met with existing smart phones. They knew their customers would be willing to pay a premium because of the more and more advanced iPods the company was selling. Apple was able to look at the competition and see what was working well, what was not working well, and what features customers truly needed. The first iPhone was truly an MVP, but the problem Apple was trying to solve was different than Blackberry or what Nokia was thinking of solving. This is why they were successful. They understood the problems their customers had. They didn’t have the most innovative phone on the market from the hardware perspective. They figured out how to attract customers through an easy to use UI. The problem people had with with Smart Phones was that it was terrible to use. Solve that simply and elegantly, you can rapidly expand into different customer segments. Then quickly move into those other segments as businessmen bought the iPhone as a personal phone and wanted to replace their Blackberry.
Assuming arrogantly that you know what the customer wants will likely lead to failure as much as asking the customer what they want/need. Identifying a viable problem and validating through experimentation is the best way to determine if it’s truly something your customer wants.