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:


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