Needfinding is the process of discovery prior to product development. Before even the first task is added to a product roadmap, a development team needs to understand exactly why they are developing a product. The rationale for product development can come from various sources: focus groups, interviews, surveys, and so on.
But it’s the content of this rationale which is what really informs the design of a product. More specifically, it’s the needs your customers face which have the biggest impact on how a product is designed.
Robert McKim developed the theory behind needfinding at Stanford University in the 1970s. Unlike other research methods, the needfinding technique disregards customer wants and focuses only on needs.
But what’s the difference?
A customer want can be defined as a feature or solution a customer finds desirable based on their subjective experience.
Like that famous quote from Henry Ford: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses”.
This is a good example of a customer want — but what is the need?
Not necessarily. The reason Ford came up with an upgrade to faster horses is that he focused on the need of the customer. In his case, it was that people needed to get around faster. By circumventing the want and focusing on the need, Ford changed the world.
That’s why needfinding is such a powerful tool.
The process of needfinding, as proposed by Robert McKim, is based around the observation and study of people. This involves a blend of techniques including interviews carried out by researchers as well as close observations in real-world scenarios.
The needfinding process can be broken down into four distinct stages which we’ll detail below. Once each stage is completed, researchers will collate and analyze their data to discover the customer insights which will inform the product’s design.
Here are the four stages of the needfinding process:
As with any other form of research, needfinding begins with good preparation. Before any researchers visit customers, they must first decide which group they want to study. Then they should formulate the questions they’d like to ask them and settle on a — preferably natural — environment in which to observe them.
At the heart of needfinding is the idea that customers don’t really know what their needs are, but that these needs will be evident to an outside observer. This stage of needfinding requires the research team to embed themselves as naturally as possible in the world of the customer to witness needs in real terms.
While the observation of people is a solid way to identify a need, it doesn’t tell the whole story. For this reason, research teams are encouraged to ask clarifying questions where necessary and to record the responses. This should take place in the customer’s own environment and on their terms.
For example, if you’re designing a cooking app, it would be wise to go and spend time with prospective users in their kitchens. Asking them what features they’d find useful while they prepare dinner is an insightful way to research and will deliver much more realistic findings versus asking them in an interview room at 11 am in the morning.
The final stage is to collate the collected data and distill it into a final list of core needs. Needfinding is often an iterative process, meaning this data can also be used to formulate a new set of questions to be used by a different research team with a different set of customers.