Needfinding, showing a user trying to get to his ship.
Published January 4, 2024

Needfinding: Crafting Products Aligned with User Needs

29 min read

What exactly is needfinding? This term, coined by Robert McKim at Stanford University in the 1970s, embodies a generative research method focusing on discerning customer needs. At its inception, needfinding was envisioned as a foundational process before product development.

In a LinkedIn discussion about product strategy research, I introduced “needfinding.” This concept was new to many commenters who had questions about it. Needfinding is a step in product innovation that predates product discovery and UX research, and the term has origins in human-centered design.

While needfinding was first used in the 1970s, it was largely influenced by the work of Rolf Faste in the 1980s, my professor and advisor in Stanford’s design program. Rolf was influenced by the methodologies of design and innovation experts like Robert McKim and David Kelley (founder of IDEO and the Stanford… also my boss, professor, and advisor). He emphasized the importance of understanding users’ needs and desires as a primary step in the design process.

Its significance lies in its role as a precursor to the actual creation of a product, ensuring that what is built is not just a reflection of fleeting desires of product management but a response to genuine, underlying needs.

Needfinding operates within the domain of product management as a research process. Its primary objective is to identify market needs, forming the rationale for developing a product. This rationale isn’t plucked from thin air; it’s meticulously gathered from various user sources. These sources include focus groups, where collective viewpoints are explored; interviews, offering deep dives into individual experiences; and feedback surveys, capturing broader patterns and trends.

Need vs Want

The crux of needfinding lies in distinguishing between ‘wants’ and ‘needs.’ 

  • Wants are often subjective, born out of individual experiences and desires.
  • In contrast, needs are more fundamental, often universal, and not always explicitly expressed.

It’s said that Henry Ford might have quipped, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Though it’s not confirmed he said this, the story illustrates a point: people thought they needed faster horses, but Ford supposedly saw a deeper need for efficient travel, leading to the birth of the automobile. It’s an excellent case exposing the differences between people’s wants and needs.

Users might only sometimes realize or be able to express what they need to improve their lives. When interviewing or surveying customers, it’s essential to remember that their current experiences and perceptions will heavily influence their responses.

Here’s why it’s good to know the difference:

  • Helps focus on what users need.
  • Makes products more useful and easy to use.
  • Ensures essential features aren’t missed.
  • Keeps designs simple and goal-focused.
  • Improves how well the product works for users.

Here’s an example of the differences:

→ Needs

Ask, “What challenges do you face when using our product?” instead of “What do you like about our product?”

This shift focuses on essential requirements and difficulties, revealing the user’s needs.

→ Wants

Ask, “What features would you love to see added to our product?” rather than “What features are missing?”

This encourages users to express desires or preferences.

Understanding this distinction is pivotal in needfinding. It allows researchers and product developers to look beyond the obvious, often superficial wants and delve into the core needs that drive them. This understanding paves the way for innovative solutions that truly resonate with users, fulfilling not just their stated desires but their unarticulated needs.

Purpose: The Heart of Needfinding

The primary purpose of needfinding is to uncover users’ true needs, often hidden beneath their actions and words. This process goes beyond simply listening to what users say they want. It involves observing what they do, how they interact with existing products or services, and their choices. These observations are crucial as they often reveal needs that users might not be aware of. For instance, users might articulate a need for a more efficient software tool, but their usage patterns might reveal a deeper need for simplification and ease of use.

The most helpful way we’ve thought of it is we actually hire products to do things for us. And understanding what job we have to do in our lives for which we’d hire a product is really the key to cracking this problem of motivating customers to buy what we’re offering.

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— Clayton Christensen, Former Harvard Business Professor

Another key objective of needfinding is to identify those aha moments – insights that impact users and drive significant organizational changes. These moments arise from deep understanding and often lead to breakthrough ideas in product development. They are the instances where a latent need is identified, offering a clear direction for innovation. For example, recognizing the need for social interaction in a fitness app could lead to integrating community features, fundamentally changing the user experience, and setting the product apart in the market.

Needfinding also aims to gain insight into users’ emotional experiences. Understanding emotions is critical as they are a significant driver of user behavior. By empathizing with users, designers and developers can create products that meet functional needs and resonate emotionally. This emotional connection can be the difference between a merely used product and one loved and advocated for.

Exploring Extreme Users for Forward-Thinking Needs

Finally, needfinding involves looking at extreme users. These individuals push the boundaries of product use because of their unique circumstances or innovative ways of using a product. By focusing on these outliers, needfinding can reveal potential needs before they become mainstream. This forward-thinking approach allows companies to stay ahead of the curve, anticipating and addressing needs that most users might not even know.

Identifying Aha Moments in Needfinding

An aha moment in needfinding often comes with the realization of an implicit insight. This is an understanding that isn’t spelled out directly but is inferred from user behavior or feedback. Such insights can be revelatory, shedding light on aspects of the user experience that were previously unnoticed. For instance, realizing that users prefer certain features at specific times of the day can lead to personalized, time-sensitive functionalities in a product.

  • Uncovering Surprises or Identifying Missing Elements. Another indicator of an ‘aha’ moment is when you uncover something surprising or identify something missing. This could be a feature that users implicitly expect but isn’t currently offered or a user pain point that hasn’t been addressed. For example, discovering that users of a reading app often manually track their reading progress can lead to the integration of an automated tracking feature.
  • Explaining Unusual User Behaviors. Sometimes, ‘aha’ moments explain why users do things that seem unusual at first glance. This understanding can open up new avenues for innovation, as it provides a deeper understanding of user needs and behaviors. For instance, if navigation app users frequently switch between routes, it might indicate a need for more dynamic routing options.
  • Resolving Contradictions in User Feedback. ‘Aha’ moments can also arise from explaining user feedback or behavior contradictions. These contradictions often point to underlying complexities in user needs or preferences. Resolving these contradictions can lead to more nuanced and effective product features.

Additional considerations

  • Anticipating Responses in User Interviews. An indication that you’ve stumbled upon an ‘aha’ moment is when you can anticipate what users will say in interviews. This shows a deep understanding of the users and their needs, often leading to more targeted and effective questions and, ultimately, more insightful answers.
  • Telling a Compelling Story. You’ll likely find an aha moment if your insight can be shaped into a compelling story. Good stories resonate because they are rooted in genuine user experiences and needs. They make the insights more relatable and straightforward to communicate to others, especially within a team or organization.
  • Desire to Share Your Discovery. Lastly, a strong desire to share your newfound knowledge with others clearly signifies an ‘aha’ moment. When an insight feels essential and valuable enough to disseminate, it often means it has the potential to impact the design and development process significantly.

The Benefits of Needfinding

One of the most significant benefits of needfinding is its ability to drive positive change within organizations by addressing customers’ underlying needs. This approach goes beyond superficial solutions, targeting the root causes of customer challenges and desires. By focusing on these fundamental needs, companies can develop products and services that solve immediate problems and create lasting value and customer satisfaction.

Beyond Customer Feedback: Uncovering True Needs

While customer feedback is invaluable, it often doesn’t tell the whole story. This is where needfinding becomes crucial for product teams. It’s not just about listening to what customers say; it’s about understanding the deeper needs beneath their feedback. To uncover these unmet needs, product teams observe how customers conduct their routines, interact with products, and face challenges in their daily lives. This observational approach provides a richer, more nuanced understanding of customer needs than feedback alone can offer.

In this video, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen shares his perspective on how customers “hire” a product to do a job for them, a form of needfinding. He shares an example from a well-known fast-food chain:

Employing Diverse Strategies for Comprehensive Understanding

Product managers can employ various strategies to understand customer needs comprehensively. These include surveys, which can capture broad trends and patterns; focus groups, which provide deeper insights into customer attitudes and perceptions; and interviews, which offer an in-depth understanding of individual experiences and needs. Each of these methods contributes to a fuller picture of what customers really need, beyond what they may explicitly express.

Minimizing Reliance on Customer Recall and Awareness

Another key benefit of needfinding is that it minimizes reliance on customer recall, description, or awareness of their own needs. Customers may not always be able to articulate their needs accurately or may be unaware of deeper needs that influence their behavior. Needfinding circumvents this challenge by focusing on observable behaviors and patterns, leading to insights that customers themselves might not be able to express. This approach ensures that product development is grounded in actual user behavior and needs, rather than solely on self-reported data.

Distinctiveness of Needfinding in Research Methodologies

What sets needfinding apart from other research methods is the assumption that customers might not be fully aware of their needs. This contrasts with traditional research approaches, which often take customer feedback at face value, assuming that customers can accurately articulate their needs and desires. Needfinding challenges this notion by delving into the deeper, often unarticulated needs that drive customer behavior. This approach is rooted in the understanding that some of the most critical customer needs are those that they themselves have not yet recognized.

Synergy with Design Thinking: A Dual Approach

Needfinding shares many values with Design Thinking, particularly emphasizing empathy towards the user. Both methodologies are user-centered, focusing on understanding and addressing the user’s real-world experiences and challenges. They involve iterative processes of research, prototype testing, and refinement to gather insights and improve upon initial product ideas.

However, needfinding complements Design Thinking by adding another layer of depth to the user research phase. While Design Thinking employs empathetic approaches to solve problems, needfinding seeks to unearth the underlying needs that might not be immediately apparent. This can lead to more profound insights and innovative solutions.

By integrating needfinding into the design thinking process, product teams can ensure they are designing solutions for articulated problems and addressing deeper, latent needs. This combination can create products that users like but truly need and value.

Integrating needfinding into the Design Thinking framework offers a more comprehensive approach to product development. It ensures that the solutions devised are deeply rooted in a thorough understanding of user needs, both expressed and unexpressed. This dual approach enables product teams to create more impactful, meaningful, and user-centric products.

Real-World Example: Uncovering the True Need in Vacuum Cleaners

Initial Customer Feedback: The Quest for Longer Power Cords

Consider the case of a company looking to address an unmet need in the vacuum cleaner market. Initially, they conducted surveys where customers overwhelmingly requested vacuum cleaners with longer power cords. At face value, this seemed like a straightforward customer need – longer cords for greater reach and convenience.

Observational Insights: A Shift in Perspective

However, the product team decided to delve deeper. They visited customers in their homes to observe how they used their vacuums. This direct observation was eye-opening. They noticed a common scenario: customers vacuuming a room but having to stop midway, unplug the vacuum cleaner, and then plug it into a different outlet to finish the task. This process was inconvenient and broke the flow of cleaning.

Uncovering the Real Need: Cordless Over Cord Length

The real ‘aha’ moment came from these observations. While customers thought they needed a longer cord, what they really needed was the ability to vacuum an entire room without the hassle of plugging and unplugging. The true need was not just about reach but about uninterrupted, hassle-free cleaning. This insight led to a significant shift in the company’s approach.

Innovation Driven by Needfinding: The Cordless Vacuum

As a result of this needfinding exercise, the company realized that the solution was not a longer cord, but a cordless vacuum. This innovation directly addressed the underlying need for convenience and ease of use. It eliminated the primary pain point customers faced, even though they hadn’t explicitly expressed it as a need. Introducing a cordless model in their product line could fulfill this newly identified need, potentially revolutionizing the user experience and setting the company apart in a competitive market.

Why Focus on Needs?

Dev Patnaik, a thought leader and founder of Jump Associates, shares compelling reasons why focusing on needs is crucial. Understanding people’s needs forms the core of successful product design. Research on needs equips businesses with the insights necessary for thoughtful product development. Design managers leverage such research to prioritize and streamline their problem-solving efforts effectively.

Needs Outlast Solutions

The concept that ‘needs outlast solutions’ is a fundamental truth in product development. For instance, consider the evolution of data storage: from punch cards to magnetic tape to 5 1/4″ floppy disks, each solution eventually became obsolete. Yet, the need to store data remains constant. This exemplifies why companies should focus on satisfying enduring needs rather than becoming too attached to specific products. By focusing on underlying needs, businesses are motivated to innovate and find better ways to serve those needs over time.

Needs Create Opportunities Available Today, Not Future Guesses

Companies are often advised to focus on understanding current needs rather than attempting to predict the future. Working to solve existing problems is generally less risky than creating plans based on future unknowns. By addressing people’s needs, businesses can gauge consumer interest in new products more accurately, leading to more targeted and successful developments.

Needs Provide Opportunities for the Product Roadmap

Understanding consumer needs is pivotal in determining the skills and offerings a company needs to develop as it grows. Identifying current unmet needs and working toward meeting them provides a clear roadmap for development. For example, Eastman Kodak, through customer studies, recognized that people wanted more than just film and photo processing. This realization prompted them to develop new capabilities, like home computer imaging software, to satisfy that evolving need.

Needs Spur Action

While qualitative social research can create a vivid picture of the customer’s experience, it does not automatically uncover ways to improve it. Detailed observations of customer behavior and environments must expose actionable opportunities to help product developers. Once a need is identified, it becomes easier for designers to conceptualize and tackle a specific problem.

Needs are Obvious After the Fact, Not Before

Interestingly, needs are often overlooked because people become accustomed to their problems and develop workarounds. Researching customer needs can unearth opportunities that competitors may have missed. A case in point is Bajaj Auto, the world’s largest motor-scooter manufacturer. They realized the significance of this when Honda made significant inroads into their market with a scooter featuring a center-mounted engine, eliminating the need for tilting – a need Bajaj had overlooked.

Needfinding: A Four-Step Iterative Process

Needfinding: A dynamic and iterative process involves engaging with and observing customers in their natural environments. The goal is to validate needs directly with potential users, ensuring that the insights gained genuinely reflect their experiences. This process involves four key stages, each requiring repetition and refinement to uncover deeper customer insights that inform product design.

The first stage is all about observation. Researchers immerse themselves in environments where users interact with products or perform relevant tasks. This immersion is crucial for noticing small yet meaningful details that might go unnoticed in a more controlled setting. For example, observing how a user navigates a software interface in their day-to-day work can reveal usability challenges that wouldn’t be apparent in a test environment.

Once initial observations are made, the next stage involves conducting in-depth interviews and studies. These interactions allow researchers to investigate the reasons behind certain behaviors observed in the first stage. Interviews can reveal users’ motivations, frustrations, and aspirations, providing context for observed behaviors.

The third stage is analyzing and synthesizing data collected from observations and interviews. This stage involves looking for patterns, contradictions, and insights that can inform product design. It’s about connecting the dots between what users say, what they do, and the underlying reasons for their actions.

Iterative refinement of the process

The final stage is iterative refinement. Each iteration of the process should bring increased focus and detail. Although the activities in each iteration may seem similar – observing and interviewing – each cycle leads to greater clarity and depth of understanding. The iterative nature of this process ensures that the insights are continuously refined and validated, leading to a more nuanced understanding of user needs.

Through these four stages, needfinding becomes a powerful tool for uncovering the real needs of users. Each iteration provides more detail and sharpens the focus, enabling designers and product teams to make informed decisions that truly resonate with their users.

Step 1: Frame and Prepare

Defining the Need Groups

The first step in the needfinding process is determining which groups to study. Researchers must carefully define the need groups, which typically consist of a mainstream core supplemented by extreme user sub-groups. Studying extreme user needs is particularly enlightening as it can uncover product features that might not be obvious when focusing solely on mainstream users. Products developed with extreme users in mind often end up benefiting a larger group as they address needs that are not immediately apparent. However, mainstream users should not be overlooked; they comprehensively understand the common, widely experienced needs.

Outlining Research Questions

The next crucial task is to outline research questions. These questions should identify the study’s goals, which may relate to how objects are used, environmental conditions, interactions between people, or specific customer classifications. The answers to these questions will guide the direction of data collection. Allowing silence and listening attentively during interviews is essential, as this approach often yields the most meaningful results.

Establishing a Grounded Understanding

Before heading into the field, it’s important to establish a grounded understanding of the topic. This involves studying established data sources like publications, expert interviews, and secondary sources. Utilizing existing research reduces field research costs and helps demonstrate credibility during the needfinding process. It provides a solid foundation upon which new, firsthand insights can be built.

Needfinding Tools and Approaches

Effective needfinding requires more than just good intentions; it requires good subjects, appropriate environments, a balance of structure and flexibility, and the ability to tell and interpret stories. The process should be iterative, seeking to delve beyond explicit insights to uncover implicit drivers. Researchers must be mindful of the Hawthorne effect, where subjects change their behavior because they know they are being observed, and ensure that interviews are conducted respectfully and thoughtfully.

Step 2: Observe (Watch and Record)

Embedding in the Customer’s World

Observation is a critical step in the needfinding process. It involves immersing oneself in the customer’s world to watch and record their behaviors. This direct observation is key to understanding needs that customers themselves might not be aware of. Many successful product designs, like bifocals, Band-Aids, and Post-it Notes, originated from designers addressing their own needs. By having an intimate knowledge of the problem, designers can make more informed decisions to meet the specific needs they are trying to serve.

Minimizing Interruptions and Alterations in Behavior

While observing, it’s essential to limit intrusions into the customer’s environment to maintain the naturalness of their behavior. This might involve using appropriate attire and language to blend in. Researchers should avoid interrupting or asking questions about activities until they are completed, as these interruptions can alter the natural flow of behavior.

Choosing the Right Tools for Data Capture

Selecting the right tools to capture a large amount of data quickly. Researchers must decide what information is important, easy to acquire, and minimally intrusive. Various tools can be employed:

  • Video Recording: Allows real-time processes to be reviewed later.
  • Audio Recording: Captures words and environmental sounds inconspicuously.
  • Photographs: Provide visual data that can be compared and sorted.
  • Drawings: Capture invisible details, like obscured features or cross sections.

Methods of Observation and Gathering Insights

Several methods can be employed for observation, including “deep hanging out,” walking in the subjects’ shoes, asking for a tour from an insider, paparazzi-style observation, and using tools like security cameras or head cameras. These methods aid in gathering stories and artifacts that communicate insights. The emphasis is on visuals that are shareable and evocative. Sketches interpret scenes, create representations, and highlight details. Quotations from user conversations, captured on Post-its, distill the essence of their experiences. Audio and video recordings capture compelling expressions of user needs, while artifacts illustrate cultural details.

The Emergent Approach in Design Thinking

In design thinking and needfinding, observing without preconceived notions of what to look for is important. This open approach allows the problem to emerge organically from the process. It’s about letting the users’ behaviors, expressions, and interactions guide the discovery of needs rather than approaching with a fixed idea.

Step 3: Ask and Record

Engaging in Contextual Conversations

The third step in the needfinding process involves asking customers clarifying questions to gain deeper insights into their needs, reasoning, and emotions. It’s crucial to record their responses to understand and interpret the feedback fully. Conducting these customer conversations in the customer’s environment, on their terms, maximizes the context’s relevance while the issues are fresh in their minds.

For example, spending time in kitchens with prospective users can yield invaluable insights for cooking app design. Props from the environment can be used to illustrate points and trigger discussions about latent needs. Encouraging customers to walk through their processes a second time, this time articulating their emotions and reasoning can reveal deeper layers of understanding.

For example, the beauty brand SkinSavvy decided to build an advocacy program with its product providers. Part of this effort includes online surveys with their existing audience:

Email from SkinSavvy announcing their latest feature on their mobile app. This is an example of how to engage in more customer conversations with your audience.

Part of this survey included an open-ended text question asking what other features or benefits would be valuable to their customers. One respondent replied with “Rewards program.” To dig deeper, the SkinSavvy team used Helio’s reply feature to ask this participant to expand on their idea of a rewards program:

This customer’s idea for a rewards program was a great suggestion for what more they want for SkinSavvy, and their follow-up reply provided even more insight into how the customer is thinking about their needs. These responses also shed light on what competitors SkinSavvy can look at to see examples their providers have already found successful.

Contextual Understanding through Questioning

Questioning helps understand the context of observed activities. The answers provide insight into why a person acted in a certain way and what they felt during the situation. This step is about probing deeper into the motivations and emotions behind actions observed during the previous step.

Capturing Customer Statements Authentically

It’s important to capture customer statements in their own words. Follow-up questions should be used to achieve the desired level of detail. Open-ended questions are particularly useful as they allow customers to explain situations in their terms. Another effective technique is having customers interpret video recordings of their activities, describing the motivations behind their actions.

Needfinding Questions: A Guide

In needfinding, gathering insights about user needs for product development is best achieved through user interviews and direct observations. Questions should be open-ended to extract deeper insights. Examples include asking users to describe how they currently resolve the issue the product is intended to solve and behaviors related to specific actions.

Suggested Questions for Needfinding

  • “Tell me more about why you…”
  • “Show me how you use…”
  • “Let’s imagine you’re doing X, how would you do that…?”
  • “If you were telling a friend about X, how would you describe it…?”
  • “How well does X enable you to Y right now?”
  • “Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about what you’re trying to achieve when…”
  • “What are you exactly doing here?”
  • “How does a typical day of X look?”
  • “How many customers of yours fall into the X category?”
  • “Can you show me how to make…?”
  • “In what ways are things different now than they were last year?”

Questions about personal background and interests can also help understand the customer’s broader context and values:

  • “Where did you grow up? How did you like that?”
  • “What was your family like?”
  • “What are your favorite books, movies, TV shows? Why?”
  • “Do you have any hobbies? What are they?”
  • “What is most important to you?”
  • “What do you wish for?”
  • “What keeps you up at night?”
  • “What are your fears?”

Step 4: Interpret and Reframe

Collating and Reframing Core Needs

The final step in the needfinding process involves interpreting the collected data and reframing it into a clear list of core needs. This step is about translating observations and responses into actionable insights. It requires reframing these interpretations in terms of customer problems that need solving. Needfinding is inherently iterative, which means that the insights gained can lead to a new set of questions for further exploration. This continuous cycle ensures that product development progresses in parallel with the ongoing needfinding activity.

Translating Information into Written Need Statements

Researchers are tasked with translating the gathered information into concise, written need statements. These statements document the customers’ needs and are invaluable in guiding product developers to make informed design decisions. The clarity of these statements is crucial, as they serve as the foundation upon which product strategies are built.

Classifying Needs in a Hierarchy of Importance

Once needs are identified, they should be classified into a hierarchy of importance. This hierarchy is instrumental in guiding decision-making during product development. It helps identify which needs are crucial and which can be addressed later, allowing for strategic trade-offs. This prioritization ensures that the most important needs are served first, maximizing the product’s impact and relevance.

For example, Goodbudget, a money management application, tested its homepage with Helio to improve its signup conversion rates. Through an initial needfinding exercise, they determined these eight buyer needs are key to address on its homepage:

  1. Support bills & debt payoff
  2. Daily budget tracking and analysis
  3. Financial goal setting
  4. Envelope budgeting method
  5. Share & sync budgets with others
  6. Personalized financial recommendations
  7. Manage subscriptions
  8. Saving for big purchases

Next, Goodbudget sent a feedback survey to an audience of mobile banking consumers. First, a maxdiff question was used to find the features on the ends of the spectrums, those that are ‘must-haves’ or not needed at all:

The same list was put to the test with a ranking question so that we not only see the ends of the spectrum but where features fall along the spectrum in terms of importance:

Finally, a card sort feature allowed us to group the features so that we understand definitely which are necessary and which are just nice to have:

View the Helio Example

Some of the features that rose to the top, which Goodbudget can start to implement on their own homepage, include personalized financial recommendations and managing user subscriptions.

Redefining Groups and Reframing Research Questions

As the process continues, redefining the user groups into more specific segments may become necessary. This segmentation allows for more targeted research questions and approaches in subsequent iterations. Additionally, as design work uncovers new issues or perspectives, research questions must be reframed to account for these insights. This continuous evolution of the research framework ensures that the needfinding process remains dynamic and responsive to emerging user needs and market trends.

Needfinding Methods: Mastering the Art of Inquiry

Becoming proficient at needfinding interviews requires practice and a deep understanding of customer psychology. It’s about considering customer wants as a window into their deeper needs. A key aspect of this process is continually questioning whether proposed ideas address the root issue. This approach often uncovers insights that are not immediately apparent but are critical for product success.

Maintaining a Balanced Focus

Achieving a balanced focus is essential in needfinding. It’s important to avoid becoming fixated on a specific need state or area, as this can limit the discovery of other potential, creative solutions. Being open to various solutions is crucial, as these may be more effective than the original ideas. This open-minded approach comprehensively explores all possible avenues to meet user needs.

The Power of ‘Why’ Questions

One of the most effective techniques in needfinding is to ask ‘why’ questions frequently. These questions delve into the reasons behind customer feelings, decisions, and motivations. The power of these inquiries lies in their ability to uncover underlying needs that customers might not be aware of, by repeatedly asking ‘why’, interviewers can peel back the layers of user experience and get to the core of what drives customer behavior and preferences.

Focusing on Understanding, Not Selling

An important principle in needfinding is to avoid the temptation to sell ideas or solutions prematurely. The primary objective is to understand customer needs deeply and authentically. This understanding should guide the development of solutions rather than trying to fit customer needs into preconceived ideas or products. This approach ensures that the solutions developed are genuinely user-centric and have a higher likelihood of meeting the real needs of the target audience.

1. Observation

Observing user behavior in context is vital. Techniques like “deep hanging out,” walking in the subjects’ shoes, asking for a tour from an insider, or employing paparazzi-style observation can be very insightful. It’s important to remain open during this process, allowing the problem to emerge from the observations naturally.

 It is important to remain open during the needfinding process and trust that the problem will emerge

2. Lead User Interviews

Interviews with fanatics or extreme users can provide deep insights into an experience from the perspective of its most passionate participants. Networks, blogs, and social media can be used to identify these users. Open-ended questions are crucial in these interviews and engaging lead users as ongoing testers for prototypes can provide continuous, invaluable feedback.

In needfinding, these users are often engaged in an ongoing manner, serving as testers for prototypes. Their extensive experience and deep understanding make them ideal candidates to provide continuous, actionable user feedback throughout development. This ongoing engagement helps refine the product and build a loyal user base even before the product hits the market.

3. Expert Interviews

Conducting interviews with domain experts helps interviewers quickly understand the context of their design challenge, offering a swift, deep dive into specialized fields. These interactions, focusing on open-ended questions, allow experts to freely share their insights, enriching the interviewer’s understanding of the design context.

Experts can provide unique perspectives on challenges and needs that are less visible to others. Questions like “What challenges in your job are often overlooked?” can reveal hidden opportunities, guiding innovative solutions in product development.

Expert interviews in needfinding are invaluable for rapidly acquiring deep domain insights and linking them to user experiences, thereby enriching the product design process.

4. Camera Studies

Camera studies involve users documenting their experiences, such as their daily lives, activities, or specific tasks, using cameras. This method allows researchers to gain a visual and experiential understanding of the participants’ environment, behaviors, and interactions from the participants’ perspective.

After identifying subjects and gaining permission, they have cameras (or a smartphone camera) and instructions to record their day. This method offers a visual and engaging perspective of the user’s daily interactions. For instance, in a study about kitchen appliance usage, participants might document their cooking activities over a week.

The benefits of camera studies include gaining authentic insights into participants’ lives, understanding the context of product usage, and uncovering needs or problems that participants might not articulate in words. This approach provides rich, contextual data that might not be captured through traditional surveys or interviews. The visual data collected can reveal subtleties and nuances of behavior and environment, offering a deeper, more empathetic understanding of user experiences.

5. Surveys

Surveys with structured questions can gather multiple perspectives or quickly test ideas. Important considerations include a screener for subjects, sequencing of questions, clear instructions, progress updates, and inclusion of open-ended questions. Testing the survey before widespread distribution is also key.

Feedback surveys in Helio

Using Helio, you can send feedback surveys to your ideal users based on their profile and behavior in your product. You can also segment your audience in the survey report according to their behavior. The goal is to gain valuable insights from users while they complete surveys or use your product. Discover new opportunities and valuable market insights based on your users’ needs, motivations, and responses to your product or service.

6. History Interview

The history Interview method is a qualitative research technique designed to understand a sequence of events or experiences from a participant’s perspective. It is particularly useful for understanding how certain behaviors, attitudes, or perceptions have developed and changed over time.

In this method, the interviewer begins by establishing the interview’s subject and expressing genuine interest in the participant’s experiences. This sets the stage for a comfortable and open dialogue. The interviewer then prompts the participant to recall their earliest memory related to the subject, such as their first encounter with a specific product, service, or experience.

From this starting point, the interviewer guides the participant through their history with the subject, asking, “What happened next?” after each recounted event or phase. This approach allows the participant to narrate their experiences chronologically, providing valuable insights into how their relationship with the subject has changed or evolved.

The history Interview method is particularly effective for uncovering deep insights into long-term patterns, changes in attitudes or behaviors, and the influences or factors that have driven these changes. It’s a powerful tool for understanding the historical context and progression of a user’s experiences, which can be invaluable in fields like market research, user experience design, and social sciences.

7. Process Mapping

Process mapping involves tracing a user’s experience from start to finish. From the user’s viewpoint, every process step is documented to uncover opportunities and understand how different stages relate.

Process mapping is a systematic method used to visually represent and analyze the steps involved in a process, typically within the context of user experience, business operations, or product development. This method aims to understand the entire process from start to finish, as experienced by the user or as it occurs in an operational context.

Here’s how Process Mapping works:

  • User’s Perspective: The process begins by considering the experience from the user’s point of view. This perspective is crucial to understanding how users interact with a product or service and identifying their pain points, preferences, and overall experience flow.
  • Tracing Steps: Each process step is traced back to the earliest stage. This involves mapping out every action, decision, or interaction the user makes from the beginning of their journey to its conclusion. In a business process context, this could involve every operational step, from initiating a task to its completion.
  • Documenting Elements: Every element of the process is documented. This includes actions taken, resources, time spent, and interactions with other processes or systems. The objective is to create a detailed visual representation (often in a flowchart) that captures every aspect of the process.
  • Analyzing Relationships and Opportunities: With the entire process laid out, it becomes easier to see how different stages are related, where bottlenecks or inefficiencies exist, and where there are opportunities for improvement or innovation. This analysis helps understand the flow of activities, dependencies, and potential areas for streamlining or enhancing the user experience.

Process Mapping is particularly valuable because it provides a clear, comprehensive view of a process, making it easier to identify areas that require attention or improvement. It’s a powerful tool for organizations looking to optimize operations, enhance user experience, or refine product features.

8. Laddering Interview (Or Five Why Interview)

The Laddering or Five Why Interview is a powerful method to uncover implicit causes and motivations behind user behavior and decisions. The essence of this technique lies in repeatedly asking ‘why’ to peel back the layers of surface responses and get to the heart of an issue.

Typically employed after covering the traditional elements of an early interview, laddering requires a sensitive and tactful approach. The interviewer must prepare the subject for this line of questioning, explaining that the seemingly repetitive or unusual questions are intended to delve deeper into important aspects of the subject’s experiences or opinions.

The process starts by establishing a base interest through open-ended questions. These initial questions set the stage and make the subjects comfortable sharing their thoughts. Once a preliminary understanding is established, the interviewer dives deeper, prompting with “Why?” for each subsequent response layer.

Navigating the Challenges of Laddering

Laddering interviews can be challenging. Don’t get stuck writing research questions. Often, subjects struggle to articulate the deeper reasons behind their actions or decisions. The interviewer needs to create an environment where the subject feels comfortable taking their time to think and respond. Allowing space and silence is crucial, allowing the subject to reflect and articulate thoughts that might not be immediately accessible.

A notable example of the effective use of this technique is by Toyota in their manufacturing processes. They employ the Five Whys to uncover the root causes of manufacturing problems. By methodically questioning each level of a problem, they can identify and address the fundamental issues, leading to more effective and long-lasting solutions.

9. Cultural Context Interview

Cultural context interviews focus on understanding a user’s implicit needs based on their values and background. This unfocused tool is often used at the end of another type of interview. It involves exploring the subject’s background, interests, and goals with open-ended questions and following up wherever enthusiasm is displayed.

Key characteristics of the Cultural Context Interview include:

  • Building Trust: This method requires establishing a rapport and trust with the participant. It’s often most effective when conducted at the end of another type of interview, where a basic level of comfort and understanding has already been established.
  • Exploring Personal and Cultural Background: The interviewer begins with a clear statement of intent, explaining the purpose and nature of the questions. The questions are designed to explore the subject’s background, interests, values, and goals. This exploration helps to understand the participant’s life experiences and cultural influences.
  • Focus on Unfocused Exploration: Unlike more structured interviews, the Cultural Context Interview is intentionally unfocused or open-ended. This allows the conversation to flow more naturally and for the participant to bring up topics that might not emerge in a more structured format.
  • Responsive and In-depth Exploration: The interviewer pays close attention to the areas where the participant shows enthusiasm or solid feelings and asks follow-up questions to gain deeper insights.
  • Combining Insights for a Comprehensive Understanding: The insights gathered from this interview method are often combined with information from other sources to create a comprehensive narrative. This narrative can reveal implicit needs and motivations that might not be visible through other research methods.

The cultural context Interview is a powerful tool for uncovering the nuanced and often hidden factors influencing a person’s behavior and preferences. It’s beneficial in fields such as user experience research, anthropology, and market research, where understanding deep cultural and personal contexts is essential.

10. Need Exploration Interview

The need exploration Interview is a qualitative research technique designed to gain empathy and deeper insight into the needs, experiences, and motivations of potential users of a product or design. This method is particularly useful in user-centered design and user experience research.

Key aspects of the Need Exploration Interview include:

  • Informal Setting: The interview is conducted casually and informally, usually at a pre-arranged time and place conducive to open conversation. This relaxed environment encourages participants to speak freely and honestly.
  • Broad Focus Areas: The discussions in a Need Exploration Interview cover a wide range of topics, such as the participant’s physical health, their ability to perform daily activities, their desires, fears, and overall life experiences. This broad scope allows for a comprehensive understanding of the participant’s life context.
  • Use of Open-Ended Questions: The interviewer asks open-ended questions rather than specific, directed ones. Questions like “What do you like to do?” encourage participants to share more about their lives in their own words, leading to richer, more detailed responses.
  • Responsive Inquiry: As the interview progresses, the interviewer notes and responds to any new questions or topics from the participant’s stories. This responsive approach ensures the participant’s experiences and viewpoints guide the conversation.
  • Emphasis on Empathy: A vital goal of this interview method is to build empathy with the participant. Understanding their experiences from their perspective is crucial in designing solutions that truly meet their needs and improve their quality of life.

The Need Exploration Interview is effective for gaining a deep, empathetic understanding of users, which is essential in creating user-centric designs that are not only functional but also resonate on a personal and emotional level with the target audience.

11. Intercepts

Intercepts are quick Q&A sessions conducted in the field. Dressing like the subjects and approaching them respectfully, researchers can ask one question at a time and capture the answer, sometimes supplemented by photos or follow-up questions.

Conduct Needfinding With Helio

Needfinding aims to uncover users’ true needs, often hidden beneath their actions and words. Go beyond simply listening to what users say they want with Helio. Observe what they do, how they interact with existing products or services, and their choices.

These observations are crucial as they often reveal needs that users might not be aware of. If you need help understanding how Helio can help with your needfinding activities, simply reach out.

Needfinding FAQs

What is needfinding, and why is it crucial in product development?
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Needfinding is a research method focused on discerning genuine customer needs, coined by Robert McKim. It’s crucial as it ensures that products address real needs, not just fleeting desires, laying a solid foundation for product development.

How does needfinding differ from traditional market research methods?
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Unlike traditional methods, needfinding emphasizes direct observation, deep interviews, and user interactions. It goes beyond what users say they want, uncovering unarticulated needs through in-depth understanding and analysis.

What are the key steps involved in conducting a successful needfinding process?
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Successful needfinding involves defining research goals, selecting appropriate methods (focus groups, interviews, surveys), gathering data, analyzing findings, and translating insights into actionable steps for product development.

Can you provide examples of companies that have excelled in needfinding and their success stories?
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The cordless vacuum cleaner example earlier in this article is a good example of an industry that was revolutionized by needfinding activities. Also, the fast food chain example in the video in this article, too.

In what ways does needfinding contribute to creating products that truly resonate with users?
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Needfinding enables a profound understanding of users’ behaviors and choices. By distinguishing between wants and needs, it guides product developers to create solutions that authentically address users’ underlying desires, fostering genuine resonance.

Build something your users truly want