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Capturing User Needs

Capturing User Needs

By Stephen M. Samuel

From focus groups, to surveys, to hidden camera studies, good industrial designers stop at nothing to capture the needs of the users of the products that they are designing. User needs, also known as “the voice of the customer,” are what should rightfully drive product innovation and evolution. In some industries, there are formal systems in place to document and facilitate the process. In other industries, it can be quite haphazard and free-flowing. For example, if you’ve ever seen how companies who design and manufacture strollers operate, you will see a very formal process that begins with a room full of every other stroller on the market, formal meetings for structure, formal time tables, and the use of a product life cycle management system to capture and rate key requirements and manage them throughout the entire innovation process. On the other hand, if you study the evolution of the mountain bike, it becomes obvious that the voice of the customer was expressed through welded gussets and fat tires on bikes that started out without them. Needs were expressed in terms of skinned knees, broken spokes and bent handle bars. Both methods have their merit and conform to the industry and the people who are involved in the process.


One of the most important tools is collocation. “Don’t judge a man until you walk a mile in his moccasins” is a motto that comes to mind when thinking about collocation. If you really want to design a better mountain bike, you must get on one and ride with a group of people who have been doing it for years. You must get their stories and invite them into the process. You must become the investigative reporter that embeds themselves with the troops and gets the inside scoop – whatever it takes. With most products, this is easy. Every one of us, by the fact that we all use products every day, is qualified to help in the design process, and we’re all critics. In general, people enjoy talking about their favorite products and what they would do to make them even better.  In many cases, these people are only accessible when you are in the environment where they are using the product.

For example, years ago I had the privilege of helping to design a new generation of poisons gas detectors. A visit to the local hasmat team was invaluable. As we walked in, many of them had just been weight lifting. They all prepare all the time for when they might have to carry a heavy pack up a hundred flights of stairs. In talking to them we learned of ways that the team used their meters that we never would have appreciated otherwise. From seeing the thick gloves that they wore when they used the meters, we knew that our buttons had to be larger than usual; from hearing their stories of how they used the meters in a smoke filled room with low visibility, we knew that we needed a bright screen with controls that you could feel without having to look at them.  We learned for the first time that they take readings from different heights in a room. We would never have known that without talking to them and having them act out an actual response.  Epiphanies such as these made a good product even better, and we were successful with our product. The act of good product design is similar to listening to the needs of one of your kids and wanting to ensure that they get just what they need.

As user needs are discovered, there are many ways to document them and rate their importance. One of the easier yet effective methods is called a bubble chart. As you talk to members of the user community and they reveal the various requirements that they can think of, you may ask them to draw a chart with each requirement surrounded by a circle with a radius large enough to represent the relative importance of each item. This should be a hand drawn chart.

Once the bubble chart has been created, you can measure the radii of all the bubbles and list them in order from largest to smallest. The largest bubbles are the most important.

Sometimes, capturing the voice of the user is difficult because of how varied the users are. There’s a product in the gas detection industry called a bump tester. The bump tester is used by at least two different groups with two different needs. One set of users comes around with a soil-covered glove and slams a meter into the unit to see if it still has its sensitivity. He’s also wearing a hard hat and safety goggles. This may inform us how to design the display – how to make the interface. We may surmise that a highly durable mechanism is needed because of the dirt and the force of a big burley guy slamming the meter into the unit. The other set of users comes around with a clipboard and clean hands and uses the tester to download data on the entire fleet of meters. The two groups have different needs, different education levels, drive different cars, speak differently; therefore, our product has to please them both. One must realize that with industrial products, the user doesn’t always make the decision to purchase. This is further proof of the realization that a product has to work for different users at different times and on different levels. It has to work for buyers at the time of purchase, but it has to work for users through the life of the product. It has to work for the people who retire the product and maintain the product. It should work for the society that uses the product in terms of its ability to be recycled. All of these conflicting needs have to be weighed and optimized.

If you’re lucky, the voice of the customer is easy to get because they tell you through blogs, chats, tweets, and other types of electronic reviews. Naturally, if there is a way to talk directly to a group of users through some type of club activity or any other type of group activity, it makes the process far easier. The challenge in that situation is making sure that you don’t give emphasis to a set of needs that is expressed just because it is expressed better. For example, when designing a bike, perhaps you are talking to a guy who’s been doing testing on the front fork. He’s got loads of data about shocks and weight distribution and angle of attack. You may be inclined to design your bike with more of this in mind and not realize that your target market really would be better served by a big simple beach cruiser.

Sometimes you have to give the voice of the customer to the customer, because what you’re creating is so different and unusual that there’s no one that has any significant experience with your product. The customer is king, so listen to him!

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