Product engineering

4 mins


Upul Weerasinghe

August 14, 2021

Needfinding is not a new concept, having been coined by Robert McKim several decades ago. But it remains more relevant than ever with many organisations finding their own definition of needfinding to help build better products.

What is needfinding?

Needfinding is the first step in any good development plan, it's a process of discovery that takes place before getting into any product development. Before we start doing anything or even adding any tasks to the product development roadmap, we have to identify why the user needs a product. This information can flow from a myriad different sources, observation, interviews, surveys, etc are all good ways to find this information.

Needfinding is unique in requirement gathering in that it ignores what customers want, and instead focuses strongly on what they need. How is this different and why is it important?

Needs vs wants

Customers generally know what they want. This is something we all know as designers and product development people. It's usually easy enough to just ask them what they want and then develop it, add to this, customers are normally happy enough to then use the product. However, there may be a decent gap between what they want, and what they actually need.

Users bridge the gaps themselves, then tell you what they want without including that area of the task!

The reasoning behind this is that people are generally good at doing their job, they find ways and means of getting their tasks accomplished. Sometimes they bridge the gaps themselves and figure out a way of working around any problems that they have, they then forget about the initial task, and instead focus only on the part of the solution that they are doing. This is what gets communicated to you when you ask people what they want. But how can you get to the crux of the matter, and find out what customers really need?

Asking why, among other things

A great way, even if slightly off putting to customers, is asking why. Whenever a customer says they want a feature, ask them why. What are they hoping to achieve with this feature? What is it being used for? Where does this fit in with their other tasks? Get the users to really analyse what they are doing and why. You might be slightly annoying to them, but hey, it's important to help them understand why they do what they do. In this way you can help them to formulate better solutions for their needs. Remember, needs remain, but solutions change with technology.

Always keep asking why

Let's take a simple example, if during the days of CDs, you asked a user what they wanted, they would say CDs with more capacity, but their need is storage, it didn't really matter what form the storage took. If they needed more storage, they worked around it by using two CDs. Instead, today we can use USB sticks with the storage capacity of more than 100 CDs and has much less possibility of being corrupted or scratched, and is easier to copy data and reuse. By examining what the customers needed, vs what they wanted we could use evolving technology to create a new product.

Whenever a customer says they want a feature, ask them "But why?"

Another great example is how Netflix evolved their offering. They started out as a service that mailed customers DVDs for a subscription. Had they questioned customers on what they wanted, they might have said a larger selection of movies, or faster delivery, but it's quite unlikely that a bunch of users would say we want to stream movies and TV shows on our television.

How do we conduct successful needfinding?

Frame and prepare

Similar to any form of requirement gathering, needfinding also begins with thorough preparation. Identify your users, then identify which particular group of users you will be working with or which user personas you will cater to. Have a suitable place to observe what tasks the users currently carry out, and how they do it (a natural environment is obviously best for this, get out of your space and head to the customer space).

Watch and record

Recording on a notebook works too ;)

The basis of needfinding is that customers only know what they are used to, they will ask for an improvement on something they already know. In other words, they are generally incapable of thinking outside their box. One simple way of finding out these needs is by observing how customers spend their workday.  Learn as much as you can about your customers, and why they do what they do and what their goals are.

Ask and record

While we won't consider the customer the font of all knowledge, you should still question the customer why they do the things they do and what they hope to accomplish. After all, they are, hopefully, more of an expert in their field than you are, and something that is readily apparent to them may be unclear to you. Don’t try to be a subject matter expert, you are only here to find out what they need, not become an expert in their domain.

Interpret and reframe

Finally, collate all your data. Analyse it and create a list of needs. This list is the starting point for your development plan. Now you can finally identify what solutions you can create to address these needs for the customers.

In conclusion

Needs can be difficult to detect or communicate. Uncovering a customer’s needs has to be done systematically and carefully through thorough research. However, needs are a much better basis for product design and development than wants. Needs remain while solutions change. Remember a good product gives customers what they want, but a great product gives customers what they need!