What Is Needfinding?

In product management, needfinding is the research process of identifying a market need for a solution. After the product team has identified this need and validated it with potential users, they will develop the product roadmap.

The process of needfinding requires product teams to interact with customers and observe them in their normal routines.

How Is Needfinding Different from Other Types of Customer Research?

Product managers can gain insights into what their customers want using different strategies. These can include surveys, customer advisory boards, focus groups, and in-depth customer interviews.

However, what distinguishes needfinding from other customer research is that when product managers take this approach, they assume users might not articulate their needs. They might not be aware of what those needs are.

Thus, needfinding also involves visiting customers and watching how they conduct their routines. So this is where a perceptive product team has a stronger chance of discovering an unmet need.
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Why Is Needfinding Worthwhile for a Product Team?

The reasoning behind needfinding is that listening to what your customers ask for will not necessarily uncover their true needs. That feedback will provide only part of the story to help your product team decide what product to develop.

Consequently, the only way to learn what people need is to observe them in their environment and watch how they handle various tasks. Here is how consulting firm Jump Associates sums up the key step of needfinding, which separates it from most other forms of user research:

“Researchers obtain the richest information on people’s needs by observing and interviewing customers first-hand. The researchers can then directly see many small but important details about the customer’s activities and the context in which they occur—details that wouldn’t be available outside that context. By directly observing customers’ activities, needfinding avoids reliance on customers’ memory, descriptive ability, or awareness of a need. 

How Do You Conduct Needfinding Research?

ProductSchool does a great job of outlining the four stages of the needfinding process for product managers. We will summarize them here.

Step 1: Frame and prepare 

In this first step, your team will develop a theory about what your market might need. Forming this hypothesis will help you narrow the scope of your research, decide which user personas to include, and set up the meeting environment.

Step 2: Watch and record

Short and sweet. Watch and record.

Step 3: Ask and record

ProductSchool lists these two steps together because they are part of the same process. Remember, the theory behind needfinding is that you will gain the greatest insights into your markets’ needs by listening to what your customers say and observing what they do. 

Step 4: Interpret and reframe

Finally, you will analyze your customer research to identify your customers’ problems and the potential products you can create to solve them. 

What Does Needfinding Look Like in Practice?

Let’s see how this process might play out with a hypothetical example. 

The product your company makes: vacuum cleaners

Your customers say they want: “longer power cords.”

What needfinding uncovers they need: a cordless vacuum

Let’s say your product team wants to find an unmet need in the vacuum cleaner market. 

You’ve sent out surveys in the past, and customers answer with the features they want. As a result, you find the request that comes up most often is a longer power cord.

This time, you decide to try a needfinding exercise. Your product team visits the homes of several customers to talk with them and observe them using your company’s vacuums.

As you watch these customers, you see why so many others have told your company they would appreciate longer cords. Customers even in smaller homes can rarely vacuum an entire room without unplugging the cord and plugging it into an outlet on a different wall.

What your typical user thinks would solve this challenge is a longer cord. But, what you realize as you observe these customers is that what they need is a vacuum that doesn’t need a power cord. That’s needfinding.

Related Terms

design thinking, user research, customer empathy, product design, behavioral product management

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