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A question about user needs: Understanding the job

I was asked an interesting question this week about user needs. I answered by talking about ‘understanding the job’.

The question

How did Apple know that people needed an iPad? Could they see a latent need/problem or was it a response to a known need/problem?

The problem is that people don’t know what they need. No-one knew they needed an iPad. When they were first announced people were sceptical. Now everyone can see the benefit of them.

My answer

I don’t think Apple did know for certain that people needed an iPad. What they did have was a good sense of who their customers are and why the iPhone was working for them.

When it comes to successful or innovative products, some companies get lucky, some have a good sense of who their customers are, and others have to spend much more time looking for the opportunities in the market.

Most companies, even Apple, have their share of unsuccessful products. Remember the Cube?

It’s important to understand that people use products for a reason. The best place to start is with the job they’re using them for. People won’t always be able to tell you what this is. You have to go and observe what people are really doing.

If you’ve never seen Clay Christenson talk about ‘Understanding the Job’, I recommend the video with the milkshake example.

Products like the iPad meet existing needs in new ways. You’ve probably seen photos of a packed commuter train in the 1950’s with everyone reading a newspaper or book. Then contrast this to 2015 with everyone now glued to a smartphone or tablet. There’s always been a need for people to entertain themselves or pass the time on long journeys. Before the mobile phone or instant messaging people wrote each other letters to stay in touch. You get the idea.

The real question is how much you invest in building or delivering something new that might ultimately fail.

I’ve got no problem with the approach of delivering something to see what works (even based on assumptions), but introducing even a small amount of user research before you start can reduce the risk of delivering something that doesn’t solve a real problem for people.

That research should never be about asking people what they want, but observing what they do. The real opportunities come from understanding how people really live their lives and get things done. Technology can then help us solve these problems in new ways.

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.