Pocket Guide to User Needs

How do you figure out what customers want? Use the scientific method.

This is the digest version of A Practical Guide to User Needs.

The Hypothesis

Ask the right questions

  1. What are the user’s goals?
  2. What are the obstacles to this goal?
  3. What are the user’s values and priorities?
  4. What is the user’s context and how much can it vary?

Make observations

  1. People-watch and dogfood. What problems do you encounter regularly? Inquire about the experiences of friends, colleagues, and strangers in coffeeshops. If you’re evolving an already existing product, look for inefficiencies. If you’re starting fresh, look at products already available in the space you’re curious about. Question choices and behaviors.
  2. Notice hacks & workarounds; ask what the motivation was and what inspired the solution. Functional fixedness is a tendency that biases us to only use things for what they are clearly designed; users who overcome this were likely compelled by a need, so identify it.
  3. Keep up with industry trends to see what excites people. Map out competitors and peripheral offerings to find gaps.
  4. Get inspired by science fiction; while the specific solutions may not be possible yet, the underlying problems are likely real and present today.
  5. Listen to your gut and let curiosity run you into corners. Your instincts will often tell you when a product isn’t quite right, when a problem isn’t quite solved, or when a vision isn’t quite pointed. Be fearless — run into dead ends, constantly question whether you’re still headed in the right direction, and change paths frequently. This ensures eventual success.

Create a prompt

Synthesize a prompt that will enable a useful conversation with a user. Pick an area of interest and create a hypothesis: users have trouble with X and could utilize Y.

The Interview

Avoid cognitive bias

Educate yourself on various types of psychological biases.

  1. Avoid leading questions by phrasing questions neutrally (e.g. “Was the task easy or difficult?” rather than just “How difficult was the task?”). and keeping the question user-agnostic (“Tell me about this.” instead of “What did you think?”).
  2. Keep users from getting boxed in by reminding them about the possibility of alternatives, asking them to take the perspective of others they know, and giving ample opportunity to provide an exhaustive answer.
  3. Vary order of questions, choices, and options presented.
  4. Listen to the user’s recollections in context when possible. Remember that people tend to remember unusual things and positive emotions, and rate experiences based mostly on their endings.
  5. Self-evaluation is greatly biased, as users tend to discount future rewards and edge cases, overestimate their control of the present and predictability of the past, underestimate difficulty of future tasks, favor outcomes with known likelihood, and create false associations.

Pick users

Determine who you should talk to. What is the demographic of your ideal customer? What does a power user or a casual user look like? Who are your competitors’ users? What type of location is the most appropriate context for your prompt (e.g. the gym, coffeeshop, library, etc.)?

Be smart, respectful, and ethical. Stick to public places unless you have the explicit permission from establishment owners. Before you get into the prompt, explain that you’re trying to develop or evolve a product and ask the person whether they’d spare a few minutes (yes, keep it short) to educate you on their opinions.

Be brave. If tapping a stranger on the shoulder is intimidating, that’s okay; start small. Interview your friends and then ask to talk to their friends. If you’re evolving a product and already have customers, go find a few at a store or throw an event.


Start with a preface of the fundamentals to ease the burden on users:

  • There are no right or wrong answers. You’re looking to understand current behaviors and choices to find areas ripe for improvement.
  • Remind the user explicitly that any issues are not their fault.
  • This is an exploration. You’re not looking for any particular answers or support for ideas. You’re looking for perspective from another’s shoes.
  • Even the mundane is valuable and of interest to you. Ask the user to overcommunicate their thoughts and experiences.

Now, dive in. The interview stages consist of:

  1. The warmup: start with easy, fun questions. Your user is doing you a favor with this chat. Make them feel comfortable.
  2. Understanding context: paint a mental picture of the environment your user would be in when facing the issues you’re exploring. Ask for lots of details; nothing is too mundane to inspire. Notice both the content of the description and the type of information shared — this hints at what users are noticing. Which factors are in the user’s control? How much does the environment vary? Pay extra attention to behaviors, choices, or elements that break expectations; how were they different and why?
  3. Understanding values: for every behavior, figure out the motivation behind it. Ask why until you get to the user’s values. Find out the relative prioritization of these values and how they fit into the user’s life overall (e.g. perhaps they won’t upgrade their washing machine because it has physical knobs instead of a touchscreen and their young daughter will twist them and it’s important to include her in family chores so she learns independence). Pay extra attention to actions that don’t map to expressed values (e.g. user says he loves cocktails but always goes to the same bar and orders the same three drinks; he’s actually unfamiliar with many of the ingredients and too embarrassed to ask the bartender or look it up in front of his friends).
  4. Zooming in and out: spend enough time on each element to sniff out the presence of opportunities and move on if there aren’t many. Balance depth and breadth to get the most value from each interview. Initially, err on the side of depth — knowing where there aren’t opportunities is more valuable than leaving a chat without having really learned anything.

Wrap up. Keep it short, no more than 15 minutes total, unless your user continues. Thank your user for their time and help and offer them a way to contact you for followup. Look back over your notes and fill in the blanks. Write down all the nuanced details; you’ll be thankful for them later.

The Analysis

Identify biases. Were there social situations that might have swayed the user? This doesn’t make your data invalid; simply keep in mind how this might impact your findings.

Now, the culmination:

  1. Organize observations on the user’s environment, values, and behaviors.
  2. Extract their goals and reapply these to their context: what obstacles get in the way, and thus what are the user’s needs? Which needs are unmet, and what is the relative pain of these?
  3. Pinpoint the best opportunities for impact.

Brainstorm potential solutions through features (guide coming soon). Analyze potential based on the magnitude of the user opportunity and business impact — a need cannot be fixed without a viable product.

Figure out what data you need next. What would you like to learn more about? What do you need to validate further, with multiple data points? How should you evolve your prompt based on your findings, to reflect new ideas?

Find more users and keep testing. Let your product morph and evolve and shift. Once the rate of change slows to a steady crawl, you’re probably holding a solid product opportunity. You’re ready for the next type of user study: the wireframes and experience prototypes.

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