The introduction of the Apple iPad has spawned a flurry of Tweets and reTweets of Steve Jobs’ famous quote “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” Jobs is right. It is inherently difficult for a human to articulate what it is they really want in a product. Here me out. I am not saying that there is lack of opinion, everyone has one of those, but what I am saying is that humans do not understand their own needs and motivations deeply enough to communicate them effectively. This is one of the reasons that many companies are turning to anthropologists to dig deeper into the cultural-psycho-social context within which those customers live.
Steve Jobs has the ability to tap into the wider cultural trends and anticipate their shifts and turns. He is part of the very group he targets. He sees the trends from both the inside and the outside. Though it may seem that Jobs stands alone in this ability, this is precisely the perspective an anthropologist can offer a company. So you may not be able to “just ask customers what they want” but with an anthropologist on the team a company can more effectively anticipate the larger cultural wave those customers are riding.