Uncover latent needs with a simple question

After publishing Latent needs are overplayed as an innovation dynamic, I got a lot of feedback. Plenty of agreement, but also some good counterpoints. And in reading through some of them, I realized that there is something to this. A lot of people are convinced that whole markets are waiting to be built based on people not really understanding their own needs.

Or if not whole markets, at least new products that can find success based on unrealized needs.

I submit that there is an antidote to this problem. That the issue is not that customers either do not know or cannot articulate their needs, or jobs-to-be-done. It’s that follow-up is required.

Are you asking ‘why’ enough?

The antidote to the scourge of latent needs is simple: ask ‘WHY?”

As you interview a customer, you’re seeking their jobs-to-be-done, along with the associated outcomes that are needed to be successful in that job. Here’s the thing: you’re going to get superficial responses initially. Not because people don’t realize their own needs. Rather, they’re fixated on current processes and product features (this is the ‘faster horses’ issue). We go with what we can recall the easiest. It’s a natural phenomenon, documented well by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. But it can result in limited insight into what they really value and seek to accomplish.

When interviewing a customer, listen for your internal voice that says, “this need is not the real one”. You’ll know it, because it will be deeply entwined in the current product features. That’s when delivering a well-timed ‘WHY?’ will make a difference.

Faster horses - WHY comic

This is not a novel concept. Indeed, it’s part of the lean six sigma methodology, used to get at the root cause of issues (here’s a Jeff Bezos example). But it’s perhaps not so obvious to use WHY in the pursuit of latent needs.

I have found asking ‘WHY’ to be a great method for penetrating the “what I easily know” bias. Two examples below – one from a former HPer, one from me – relate the value of understanding ‘WHY’.

HP large format graphic plotter

Spigit innovation management platform

Related by Marvin Patterson, President Dileab Group, and formerly with Hewlett-Packard From my own experience as VP Product – Spigit
We were asked to figure out how to get HP into the large format graphic plotter business. In one customer visit after another we were told that accuracy was the critical requirement. The current product to beat utilized a magnetic x-y motor moving over a precisely grooved steel surface that was mounted on a super-flat granite slab weighing the better part of a ton. This $50,000 product had accuracy that was hard to beat.

During a visit to a semiconductor design company, I asked them to show us how they used these highly accurate drawings. We were ushered into a room where engineers were verifying the design of multiple chip layers. They did this by taping the drawings, each roughly 3×4 meters, to a large light table, with each drawing carefully aligned with the one below. They would then crawl around on top of the light table, literally on their hands and knees, sighting down through the layers of transparent Mylar, and checking the alignment and design of each layer.

“See,” said our host, “that’s why we need the accuracy.” But, in fact, this application did not use the accuracy at all. It depended, instead, only on repeatability between one drawing and the next. Repeatability is fairly cheap and easy to accomplish. Accuracy is really, really expensive. After a thorough survey of the market, we decided that repeatability was the crucial specification in most applications, so we traded off accuracy for lower cost. The resulting product employed a radical new plotting mechanism that delivered extremely good repeatability, fairly poor accuracy, and sold for under $15,000. Within three years its sales exceeded 50% market share.

I performed a jobs-to-be-done exercise with multiple customers. One job that several talked about was the need to get more people ‘down-voting’ ideas. What they were seeing was that people tended to be positive only, or they didn’t rate an idea at all.

More down votes JTBD

Hence the desire for more down-votes. But I asked for more than that. “Why?” Because they wanted better distinguishing of the good ideas from the bad, and getting only up-votes made that hard.The real need was better ways to distinguish ideas. The request for ways to increase down votes was the way they expressed that.Customers were providing feedback on the current process/features when they talked about more down-votes. But pressing them to understand why unveiled the real need. And there are a lot of other ways to stratify ideas besides increasing down-votes.

Marvin got to the real need here by pursuing customers’ responses through ‘why’. Note that repeatability wasn’t an unrealized need. Customers were doing this with every design! They indeed realized they needed to do it. It’s just that they were caught up in the current process they used when expressing This insight was used later in the product roadmap to address the real need. Rather than push to get users to do something they were uncomfortable with – down voting – there are ways to leverage what they actually do.

In both cases, customers were providing feedback about current process and product features. But with some digging, the root job-to-be-done was secured. Nothing latent or unrealized. Just some work penetrating the natural way people think: starting with what they can easily recall. Dig deeper with WHY.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.


Tell your work story with an infographic

Resume screen shot - reflectionI have recently found myself updating my resume. Why? After 4 1/2 years at Spigit, I have moved on as the company has been acquired by Mindjet. It was a good run there.

So I needed to dust off the resume. And you know, it was eye-opening how limiting resumes are. They are great for their core job-to-be-done: provide a history of your work. But they’re terrible if you want to go into more depth. You see advice to limit resumes to two pages. Use “power” verbs. Avoid graphics that foul up automatic scanners.  Good counsel, but not what I want.

I wanted to communicate a narrative about my work at Spigit. We spend so much time in our jobs, and there is always a story there. It’s richer than anything you can communicate via a series of bullets about your skills. I want to describe the circumstances of the work. Give some key milestones of my employment. Describe the projects and outcomes of my work. Creative types will augment resumes with portfolios. What about the rest of us?

It occurred to me that infographics are good for my purposes. They get across key information in a narrative using a visually interesting style. But they don’t require a significant investment of time and focus for the reader. So I created my own infographic to describe the context and work of my time at Spigit:

VP Product Spigit infographic

I tried using one of the infographic-generation sites, but wasn’t satisfied with the results. The default templates didn’t match the story I wanted to tell, I wanted to do more with the interplay of text and graphics, and the PNG image upload was buggy. Instead, I used two free apps to make it:

  • Google Docs – drawing app
  • GIMP image program (installed)

I exported the Google Drawing to PDF. To turn the PDF into a high resolution PNG file, I followed the advice on this StackExchange post.

The final question is where to put the infographic. It doesn’t exactly fit a standard letter (U.S.) or A4 size, so you can’t append it to your resume. So I’ve uploaded it to Slideshare and Scribd, added it to my LinkedIn profile, and it graces the About Me page of this blog. Would be kind of daring to send it to a prospective employer, eh?

If you’re interested in creating one of these, feel free to contact me. I can offer you what I learned in making it. And in case you’re wondering, Spigit’s revenues are publicly available via SEC filings by its lead investor PICO Holdings.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

Latent needs are overplayed as an innovation dynamic

Reading this thought piece from the Silicon Valley Product Group, The End of Requirements, I saw this point about latent needs:

Unrealized needs (also called “latent needs”) are those solutions where customers may not even be aware they even have the need until after they see and experience the solution. Examples include digital video recorders, tablets, always-on-voice, self-driving cars, etc.

In other words, customers often don’t know what they want. This is essentially another version of the Henry Ford quote, “If I asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.”

I want to differ with the Silicon Valley Product Group here. People do know their needs, it’s incumbent on companies to understand them. Then it’s appropriate to try out ideas that can better satisfy those jobs. This diagram illustrates the two separate dynamics:

Decoupling customer JTBD from solutions

In their post, they use self-driving cars as an example of “latent needs”. Two issues with that. First, self-driving cars are not yet in the market, so it’s not possible to say that was a latent need, as described by the Silicon Valley Product Group. The second issue is that self-driving cars will actually address known jobs-to-be-done. I wrote a whole post on that, Exactly what jobs will self-driving cars satisfy? In that post, I outline several jobs-to-be-done and some key outcomes desired:

Job-to-be-done Outcomes
I want to get from point A to point B Minimize commute time | Minimize accident risk | Minimize commute risk | Increase driving enjoyment
I want to get work done Increase digital work completed | Increase availability for conference calls | Minimize distractions
I want to improve the environment Minimize emissions | Minimize fossil fuel consumption
I want to enjoy my personal interests Increase spent on activity | Minimize distractions

The point here is that these are not latent needs. Some are needs that people do not think about now in the context of commuting in a vehicle. But they are not latent needs.

I do agree there are some needs that can be hard to discover, or which become more important as societal norms and expectations change. Sure, there are some needs that are not obvious and may indeed become more visible in the face of a potential solution. But these are exceptions, not the norm.

Making product and innovation decisions based on the thought that, “Well, people don’t really know what they want” is a recipe for a lot of wasted effort. It’s not a sustainable basis for growth.

Agree? Or think I’m oversimplifying things?

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

Generate opportunity maps with customer jobs-to-be-done

JTBD Opportunity MapIn seeking to better understand customer jobs-to-be-done, I found myself a bit underarmed. Meaning, I didn’t really have a way to do this. The value of jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) thinking has only emerged recently. It’s still nascent, and there aren’t ready guideposts to follow. However, Tony Ulwick has been at it over two decades. Indeed, his outcome-driven innovation remains a powerful methodology with the structure needed to effectively identify opportunities. It is the JTBD standard.

But in my work, I wasn’t ready to engage external consultants. My project was more low level, relating to a significant enhancement to an enterprise software platform. My needs – and budget – didn’t rise to the level of a full-fledged consulting engagement. Also, I wanted to be the one talking with customers.

So I did what anyone interested in innovation would do. I hacked my own approach.  I wanted a way to elicit jobs-to-be-done that had the following aspects:

  • Accessible anytime I wanted it
  • Low cost (free!)
  • Allowed me to rank  different jobs-to-be-done
  • Created a way of seeing where the opportunities are
  • Deepened my understanding of, and connection with, customers

The presentation below outlines a method to generate opportunity maps with customer jobs-to-be-done:


As you’ll see in the presentation, I consider this an initial blueprint. One that can, and should, be hacked to optimize it. But as the approach exists now, it will provide significant value. And for those who haven’t engaged customers at this level of dialogue, you’ll be amazed at what you learn.

Give it a try and let me know what value you get in talking JTBD with your customers.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.