Users' ability to predict features they "need"

19 May 2008 - 9:24pm
8 years ago
3 replies
1381 reads
Todd Moy

Hi all,

I'm looking for some information about users' ability to predict the
features that they need. In the past, I've heard the statement "people are
poor predictors of the features they need." I tend to agree with this
argument, especially since I encounter cases where clients feel they "need"
blogs, forums or whatever without first analyzing the goals of their users.

What I can't recall is if there are studies that support or refute this
argument. I think Dan Ariely spoke of this in context of behavioral
economics; I didn't know if there were any other places where this topic
cropped up.

Thanks in advance,

oombrella /a/


20 May 2008 - 9:35pm

Hi Todd,

I've looked at this question over more decades than I care to
mention from the angle of an analyst gathering user requirements, a
software product designer and a user of software and other products.

I agree with the premise in your first paragraph, though there you
are looking at false positives ("we need this now" when in fact
they don't). My experience has been that the big problem is with
unidentified needs - the false negatives ("I didn't realize I would
need that"). There's a very old saying (meaning I can't remember
who said it) that goes "Users don't know what they want until they
see what they get."

This is so deeply true that's it's almost trivial - except I wish
I'd been the first to say it. It's when people start to use
something that they realize the possibilities and then make further
demands. Hence project overruns, feature freezes, agile development,
and a hundred other outcomes and software provision strategies.

But IMO agile development with multiple partial deliveries, user
involvement in design and giving immediate feedback can be a
solution. But in many cases it just isn't possible, financially,
politically or on the available timeline.

The other way round ("I must have a forum") is even harder. Maybe
they don't need a forum and when they get it, time will be soaked up
in non-productive ways, maybe they don't need it, but when they have
it new undreemed of possibilities will open up. Or maybe, of course,
they really need it, know exactly why, and go forward to use it that

I can't point you at any research on this, but I believe that such
research if identifed would be for a very specific set of
circumstances. You appear to be looking for references to a general
solution. As a management consultant I agree with your 'define the
goals' comment, but that isn't a solution that helps when users
find a truly beneficial but unexpected application of something they
got by saying "I need one of those".

In the end it often comes down to the cost and the justification.


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Posted from the new

22 May 2008 - 7:58am
AJ Kock

I think the problem lies with the fact that designers assume people
will develop a need for a specific product, when actually people
develope functional needs (they want to accomplish stuff). Products
serve these functions either well or poorly.

People don't develop a need for an iphone (that comes after it became
a fashion statement). People have a need to accomplish certain tasks
which might involve: staying in contact with friends, checking your
favourite websites, want an phone that is easy to understand, etc.

You would be better off observing your users over a time period and
see if they develop a need for communication (forum), frequent news
updates (blog) or instant communication (chat services like twitter,
skype, etc.).

Also look at your frequent visitors / users (look at what their needs
are) as they might be the trend setters and they will convince others
to use your new services. Yes, I am referring to books like The
Turning Point and Purple Cow for inspiration on understanding and
"predicting" your users future needs.

23 May 2008 - 12:40pm


Not aware of any studies on this but came across this great article
that covers this topic very well, some highlights:
"customers" usually do not know exactly what they want and can rarely
understand or articulate what they really need. They may have an
accurate picture of some of the obvious needs, though often they do
not recognize the underlying problems nor are they in a position to
come up with the optimal solution. For example, a customer may request
a small change in a 10-step process, though someone in a position to
better analyze the problem may be able to figure out a way to reduce
it to 3 steps — or eliminate the process altogether.

Sachendra Yadav

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