How to find out find out about user needs and problems?

I wanted to learn more about Human-Computer Interaction and so I decided to do an online course by Scott Klemmer, an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science & Engineering at UC San Diego, and a Visiting Associate Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University. Human-Computer Interaction (‘HCI’) is all about the study, design and planning of interaction between humans and computers.

The first main topic that Scott delved into was ‘need finding’; how do you find out about user needs? Where do you get good design ideas? Which user needs do you concentrate on when developing a new (digital) product?

As part of the online course, I learned about tools that can help in both finding and crystallising user needs. These are main things that I picked up from Scott Klemmer’s lecture on need finding:

  1. Participant observation – Like at Stanford’s Institute of Design, Klemmer stressed the importance of empathising with users by simply observing their actual behaviours. He talked about “deep hanging out” – a term originally coined by Bronislaw Malinowski who used participant observation as a way to develop ‘tacit knowledge’ about the people he observed and their behaviours. In his lecture, Klemmer mentioned a a few things that one could potentially get out of participant observation, which I’ve listed in Fig. 1 below. The overarching objective here is to design products that weave themselves into the fabric of people’s everyday lives.
  2. Apprenticeship – It was interesting to hear Scott views on learning about user needs through acting as an apprentice –  shadowing an ‘expert’ and picking up on all kinds of informal skills and knowledge in the process. As an apprentice, you can be on the lookout for the workarounds that people use and errors that they come encounter. All these observations could be opportunities for a product redesign.
  3. Interviews – Interviewing users is a great way to find out about user needs and problems. Scott stressed the importance of avoiding leading questions and other types of questions which could direct the user in a certain direction (see Fig. 2 below). Instead, Scott urges listening, being curious and asking open-ended questions. I thought Scott made a great point when he suggested asking users about their own lives, their own goals since “that’s what they’re experts in.”
  4. Activity Analysis and Design Goals – I guess the key thing I learned from this lecture was the value of creating “design goals”. In a way, design goals bridge the gap between user observations and the ultimate design. What should a design establish? What matters in a design? Scott introduced the “Activity Analysis” as a good tool to list all the problems, needs, issues collated from observing users. Following such an activity analysis, one can work towards product-specific outcomes (see Fig. 3 below). Scott also pointed out that Activity Analyses are probably best geared towards designing workflows or repeated activities.

Main learning point: In addition to all the practical suggestions and techniques that one can apply in relation to need finding, Scott Klemmer highlighted something else which acted as a good reminder: one designs artefacts, not tasks. His lecture acted as a good reminder of the importance of designing (a) with the user constantly in mind and (b) for a multitude of activities.

Fig. 1 – Things to get out of participant observation (by Scott Klemmer)
  • What do people now?
  • What values and goals do people have?
  • How are these activities embedded in a larger ecology?
  • What are the similarities and differences across people?
  • … and any other types of context, like the time of day

Fig. 2 – Types of questions to avoid (by Scott Klemmer)

  • Leading questions – For example: Do you think this is a good idea?
  • Hypothetical questions – For example: What would you do/like/want if/when […}?
  • Questions around frequency – For example: How often do you do exercise?
  • How much users like things on an absolute scale – For example: Rate how much you like to do exercise
  • Binary questions (yes/no) – For example: Do you like exercising?

Fig. 3 – Potential outcomes of an activity analysis (by Scott Klemmer)

  • What are the steps of the design process?
  • What are the design artefacts?
  • What are the design goals – how will we measure design success?
  • What are the design pain points?

Related links for further learning:


What can 3D printing technology bring us?

One of the new technology trends which I’m very excited about is 3D printing. 3D printing is the process of making of a three-dimensional solid object of any shape from a digital model, using an additive process where successive layers of material are added in different shapes (see Fig. 1 and 2 below).

To be honest, this process still sounds a bit futuristic and abstract to me, but I do understand the main difference with traditional machining techniques which mostly rely on the removal of material through cutting or drilling (subtractive process).

I found this explanation of 3D printing on wikipedia quite helpful:

“Additive manufacturing takes virtual blueprints from computer aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software and “slices” them into digital cross-sections for the machine to successively use as a guideline for printing. Depending on the machine used, material or a binding material is deposited on the build bed or platform until material/binder layering is complete and the final 3D model has been “printed.”  

These are some examples of what 3D printing can do which caught my attention:

  1. Create pharmaceutical drugs – The use of 3D printing to enable patients to print out their prescriptions could potentially transform the pharmaceutical industry. A team at Glasgow University have developed a process to synthesise chemicals through 3D printing. This team has come up with a very complex but innovative solution: building a multi-layered “cake” of reactive chemicals, reversing the order in which these layers might usually be laid down. As soon as this cake finishes printing, the molecules from the top of the layering work their way through the other layers to kick off the desired chemical reaction.
  2. Print your own swimwear – 3D printing applications such as the creation of your own bikini (see Fig. 3 below) could possibly have an impact on the fashion industry. Thousands of circular plates, connected by minuscule springs, are printed in 3D using Nylon 12, a solid but flexible polymer. I don’t wear bikinis myself but I nevertheless did find myself wondering whether such a ‘printed bikini’ would actually be comfortable to wear …
  3. Print food – When you think that you’ve heard it all when it comes to pretty wacky applications of 3D printing, think again! Researchers at Cornell University (see Fig. 4 below) and at NASA have created prototypes around the idea of printing “digital recipes” whereby 3D printers will combine powders to produce food. 3D printing already works quite successfully when it comes to making chocolate, so who knows what’s next?

Main learning point: Even though some of the current examples of 3D printing may seem a bit out there, the process of adding a number materials to create products in a very cost-effective way is hugely exciting. Most of today’s 3D printing applications are still very much at a prototyping stage but think for a second about the ability to create medication or food through your 3D printer …

Fig. 1 – A visual representation of a sample 3D printing process (taken from   


Fig. 2 – A diagram of a sample 3D printing process (taken from

3D process2

Fig. 3 – Intro video to printing a bikini by Continuum Fashion

Fig. 4 – Cornell University’s 3D food printer (by CNN Money)

Related links for further learning: