Understanding User Needs


Getting the product or service right is equally about understanding known as well as latent user needs and about finding the right solution to satisfy these needs. Or as Clayton Christensen puts it, we need to understand the job that the customer tries to get done and find a better solution than any of the existing solutions. 

The process of understanding the user has two main parts. An opening part and a closing part. The goal of the opening part is to gather information about users. This can be done in different ways, but the key methods are observation and interview. The goal of the closing part is to structure the information to be able to decode and understand user needs. 

In this part of the innovation and development process you will have to cope with a high degree of uncertainty and to rely on the tools and the work process as your way out of "the fog". 

You will need tools for finding the right information in the opening part of the process (business focused ethnography), for structuring your information (empathy map, threshold map) and for decoding the information (pattern recognition simple or advanced. You may also want a tool for tracking your progress (validation board). 

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Learning Objectives

The student should understand the methods for uncovering user needs and be able to uncover these on a practical level. The student should also be able to cope with the uncertainty that entrepreneuers experience at this level of the innovation process, and be able to help others to cope with uncertainty by helping them to find their own way out.
Level or Phase: Beginner
Methods and Concepts: Business focused ethnography, empathy map, threshold map, pattern recognition simple, pattern recognition advanced, validation board


Notebook, pen, paper, camera, post-it, voice recorder, (alternatively use a smart phone), printed validation boards, wall space or foam boards.

Reading List:

  • Jan Chipchase: Hidden in plain sight. How to Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow's Customers.Harper Business, 2013
  • Patricia L. Sunderland and Rita M. Denny: Doing anthropology in consumer research.  West Coast Press Inc., 2008
  • d_school: Bootcamp Bootleg. Standford, 2010
  • Eric Ries: The lean startup. Portfolio Penguin, 2011
  • Charles F. Kieger and Leonard A. Schlesinger: Just start. Take action, embrace uncertainty, create the future. Harvard Business Review Press, 2012
  • Mauricio Vianna et. al.: Design Thinking, Business Innovation. Rio de Janeiro, 2012
Assessment Method: Since the goal of this face is to gain insight into user behavior, user needs and market opportunity, you should assess if these goals have been reached. You can do this in several different ways, it could be a pitch, a longer presentation with pictures, video and voice recordings from the field work. You could also ask students to make a small presentation video, or write a report on their findings and insights.
Author: jgm


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Legal Disclaimer

This project is implemented through the CENTRAL EUROPE Programme co-financed by the ERDF.