NeedForecasting: Going Beyond Current NeedFinding

The current state of market research forces businesses into a game of limited, incremental insights. Research methods are structured in such a way that relies heavily on the past and present — a set of existing preferences, an existing product, an existing behavior, or perhaps an existing prototype. For market research to be truly effective and drive new innovations, product and marketing teams must use a new method of research, “Needforecasting”, that looks beyond the here and now.

Current State

Traditional market research is defined as “the action or activity of gathering information about consumers’ needs and preferences.” In 2013, ESOMAR found that $40.3 billion was spent on market research. To put forty billion dollars in perspective, it is the total worldwide spending on mobile advertising in 2016. Companies are comfortable spending this type of money on research today because the resulting market research data validate assumptions, informs product decisions, identifies new customer segments, and boosts understanding of competitors.Planning Innovation through NeedForecasting

Let’s look at a hypothetical research team trying to understand electric vehicles. They are likely to employ surveys, focus groups, personal interviews, observation, and field trials in order to gather insights on current fears, wants, and needs. Across each research method, you might find a variety of questions such as:

  • Have you considered purchasing an electric car? Why or why not?
  • How much time do you spend in your car per week?
  • What factors were important to you last time you purchased a vehicle?

These are all well-designed questions that avoid biases, combine qualitative and quantitative data, attempt to identify needs, and even explore consumers’ sentiment on the future. However, stopping after this stage of research means the inquiring team and the research subject are only looking at the problem through a small lens constrained by the current existing state of being affairs.

Needs and Needfinding

Design Thinking has exploded in popularity over the past decade and its principles are being applied across all business units, especially product development, marketing, and research. The tenets of Design Thinking help companies build better products and services because they are forced to build around the customer and the customer’s needs. This emphasis on the customer’s needs has bred a new practice called “Needfinding” which is often likened to ethnographic research.

One of the most important principles of Design Thinking and Needfinding is that needs are verbs, NOT nouns. Look at the difference between verbs and nouns for a Sony design team building next-gen headphones:

Noun: The customer needs wireless headphones

Verb: The customer needs to listen to music without disturbing others

Most internal teams will fixate on the noun. In the Sony headphones case, maybe the team fell in love with the wireless attribute of the new headphones. This internal enthusiasm might have even caused the Sony marketing team to craft a huge marketing campaign around the convenience of the wireless tech.

But, you can see how “listening to music without disturbing others” is the distilled need that opens up a true understanding of the customer. This verb-need allows for infinitely greater possibilities in finding a solution that delights that customer. Perhaps the ideal solution is a device that aims sound waves at the listener in a targeted way or perhaps a technology that cancels out sound from moving beyond a certain personal radius.

“A verb will allow your imagination to fly whereas thinking of your users’ need as a noun means you have already defined the solution. Nouns constrain our thinking to variations on a theme. Verbs allow us to stray away from the obvious and come up with blue sky ideas.” — Empathy Design


“If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” Though Henry Ford never actually made this declaration, I still love how it highlights the tension between noun-needs and verb-needs. “A faster horse” is a noun, which we know now is not a real need. If these customers had actually asked for a faster horse, Ford should have known to pry deeper until he identified a verb; perhaps he could have extracted something like: “I need to travel to my destination more quickly and safely.” You can immediately sense that this verb-based need opens the door for significant innovation.

It is important to note that a well-defined need is usually only synthesized after the surveys, interviews, and other methods discussed earlier. The identification of the verb-need is a crucial checkpoint in the research journey because it is the result of needfinding and the platform off which to dive into needforecasting.

Armed with an understanding of the customer’s current needs, you have to go back to this group with a well defined and future-facing problem statement (no more focusing on the existing state of affairs). Let the customers project their current needs into a hypothetical, forthcoming world.

Problem Statements

At MindSumo, we found that the title of a project, essentially a single sentence problem statement, influences participation ideation in a statistically significant way. When the problem statement is an open-ended forward-looking question, the project will receive 24% more ideas than projects that use a declarative statement. This supports the idea that a poorly crafted problem statement can instantly stifle your research and needforecasting. Avoid these three pitfalls:

    1. Implying pre-defined solutions (nouns)
    2. Referencing a current state
    3. Making a declarative statement rather than an inquisitive question

Here are a few example problem statements and research prompts that greatly outperformed others:

  • How can light manipulation transform skin care?
  • Define your ideal virtual bank
  • How can we clean up the Ganges River?
  • Eliminate plastic bottles in hotel bathrooms

The Ideal Process

If we really want to shape the future as researchers, builders, designers, marketers, planners, and strategists, then we need to be aware of how we frame the problems we hope to tackle. We must avoid a mindless approach to research that is chained to our current state and littered with pre-defined solutions (nouns).

The most effective research process a) uses existing methods to identify current human needs (verbs), b) frames an open-ended problem statement, and c) re-engages customers to forecast their future needs (needforecasting).

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