I’ve heard this a few times, and just recently at an incubator Lean Startup meeting. Entrepreneurs can be miffed by the Lean Startup requirements to spend so much time looking for customer validation. After all, Steve Jobs (as well as Akio Morita, Mr Sony) are known for rejecting customer research, stating that customers do not know what they want until you build it for them.
It is a myth to believe that Steve Jobs built the iPhone in isolation of customer validation. Steve Jobs was very much aware of the needs and problems of mobile phone users. And he built the iPhone to respond to those needs. I was at MacWorld’s iPhone announcement and saw first hnd how Steve was in tune with that users wanted – from a phone, an iPod and a mobile internet device (the three pillars of the iPhone as he described it). He clearly spoke of the complexity of the UI of mobile phones, boasting a bunch of features like address books and cameras that no one knew how to turn on or use. He knew the need that people had to be able to do simple internet queries while away from their desk, to find the address of a restaurant, get a map of their location, or some quick fact-checking.
The foundation of the iPhone had strong customer validation. The reliance on touch however (and the lack of a physical keyboard) was a bet however, one that could not easily have gotten customer validation (besides internal beta users). Several tech CEOs saw that as a wild failing bet (Mr Ballmer’s for example), because they thought that they had sufficient customer validation that a physical keyboard was a requirement. Apple’s genius was in changing the conversation from “physical vs touch keyboard” (which they would likely have lost) and to “complete touch interface with intuitive powerful new gesture-based interactions (pinching, zooming, swiping, etc)” that was so compelling overall that people were willing to trade off the accuracy of the physical keyboard for the power and versatility of the all-touch interface.
Customer validation and engineering creativity both have their place in great product development – external customer validation is needed to understand the problem area and need, from a customer perspective; internal engineering creativity is needed to deliver a unique innovative implementation of a solution to those needs.