I used to think that the best way to know what work to make and share is to ask people what they want, but now I'm not so sure that it is—because when you ask people that question all they do is tell you what they like. And likes can't always be trusted.
Sure, we can host a 1000 person focus groups, send out a 1000 tell us what you think cards, and email people 1000 surveys, and then analyze the results, but will that really reveal to us what people want? No. It mainly only tells us what people would like and what they think they want.
While any one of these tactics might reveal certain trends of thought in our culture, what's interesting is that those themes often contradict one another when compared and contrasted. For example, one people group will comment that the product has too many features while the other people group will comment that it has too little features.
So who's right?
The peculiar thing is that neither group is right or wrong. They're both right in a sense, because they both have an internal reaction that says I feel this way about that, or I like this and don't like that. But the problem is, those feelings are very subjective and fluid, and they can't always be trusted. They thereby become faulty foundations to build a campaign or product design on, because feelings change with time and people are always struggling to distinguish what they would like and what they actually need.
For that reason, the best innovators, designers, writers, marketers, and artists are less concerned with asking what people like and more concerned with anticipating what it is that people need. And in a sense, when they debut their product, or piece, or whatever, they are showing what is needed rather than asking what is needed.
Disagree? Think about the products and things you cherish most. It's likely that you didn't know you needed it until you saw it, heard it, or held it.
I can say for sure that I didn't know I needed an album like Arcade Fire's Funeral before I encountered it in the first year of my undergrad back in 2004, but from the first 30 seconds of listening to the first track on that album, I knew that I did in fact, need and was searching for those sounds all along.