Uncovering Hidden Customer Needs

It’s been reported that up to 90% of all new products fail to meet their business objectives.1 With odds stacked so high against you, what can you do to give your next product the highest chances of being successful?

A major cause for the failure of new products and services is that they cannot be fully differentiated from other offerings on the market. The products themselves may work, they may work faster, be more sensitive, more powerful than other products—yet if they fail to excite customers they are unlikely to fully reach their business objectives.

Despite the large number of new products launched every year, many of these embody only incremental innovations that fail to meaningfully differentiate the new product or service from the competition. Leading innovators have started using Hidden Needs Analysis techniques to better understand customers so that they can tailor products and services to address more of the challenges customers face during their daily routines.

Too often tongue tied

In order to understand what customers want, marketing departments and product innovation teams are encouraged to listen to the “voice of the customer.” However, the most commonly used methods of gaining insight into customers’ needs, such as focus groups and surveys, can have significant limitations.

In responding to questionnaires and interviews, customers often struggle to articulate their needs because they are not consciously aware of the limitations of current products and cannot imagine the sort of products that will be feasible in the future.2

A perfect example is the SMS text message, which was originally conceived as a clever way for staff of mobile operators to contact each other, rather than as a consumer product. However, SMS messaging answered the “hidden need” for people to be able to contact each other using a short message when making a phone call was deemed inappropriate—and by 2010 some 6.1 trillion messages were being sent every year.3

Hidden needs excite

Hidden needs have been described by Goffin, Lemke and Koners4 as “issues and problems that customers face but have not yet realized.” When hidden needs are addressed by new products and services, customers are both surprised and delighted. Uncovering a hidden need also helps you to increase the effectiveness of your content marketing strategy by better aligning your content with the customer’s buying cycle.

Where solutions to those needs are being implemented, highlighting them to customers as a key part of a marketing program is likely to cause a visceral and emotional response that will be far more effective than merely quoting performance characteristics.

The Kano satisfaction model

These ideas are perhaps easiest to understand using the Kano model,5 which describes 3 main types of need: basic, performance, and excitement.

Known needs tend to fall within the basic and performance needs, and many basic needs may not turn up in surveys because they are taken for granted. 

This leads to the question, if customers struggle to articulate hidden needs, how can they be identified?

In their book Identifying Hidden Needs, Goffin et al4 describe a number of ways to conduct hidden needs analysis. These techniques derive from anthropology and psychology—two sciences that aim to uncover people’s views and beliefs.

Uncovering what’s hidden

One of the most effective approaches described by Goffin is ethnographic market research, which combines the systematic observation of how people interact with products and services with contextual interviewing. These studies need to be conducted in the field where the customer actually encounters the issues that the new product or service is being designed to overcome.

There is more to professional observation than merely watching and recording what is being done. Body language, spatial signals, and other subtle gestures can be easily missed, yet these are the clues that provide a window into the customer’s desires. A key advantage of observation is that it is direct and does not rely on customers’ reported perceptions and the observations can be contrasted with what the customer says. Particular note should be taken of those areas where there are differences between the observed and reported behaviors.

In the majority of business-to-business cases, ethnographic research will involve visiting a customer site and taking up some of their valuable time, so when and how often a procedure/process can be observed will be dictated by the time the customer can afford to give you. In an ideal world, the use of photography and video would be used to support the written notes taken on site, but oftentimes this is not possible.

Context is critical

The first part of any ethnographic research involves understanding the context by taking a grand tour. The aim of the grand tour is to gain insights into the wider context and culture of the organization and the people who work within it.

The next part of the process involves observing the customer overcoming the challenge that the new product looks to address using the current product(s) or service(s) that they have available to them.There are also 8 key underlying questions that need to be answered as part of a contextual interview:

  • What is the purpose of the activity?
  • What has to be done before the product or service can be used?
  • What procedures are used?
  • What are the time and space requirements?
  • What are the personnel requirements?
  • What is the nature of the social organization?
  • What are the occasions for performing the activity?
  • What happens after you have completed the activity?

Multiple questions and variations in phraseology will need to be used to gain full answers to these questions.

Recording and mapping the full process end-to-end is also likely provide useful insights to the challenges faced by the customer, not just with a single product but with the workflow itself.

Once a full series of interviews has been conducted, the data is then analysed using the ethnographic codes described in Table 1. The codes are used to classify data (comments, quotes, observations), and these can then be further analysed by quantifying, comparing, and contrasting the codified information between various customer sites.

Table 1. Ethnographic coding scheme
Code Description
Top-level Codes
Acquisition Reason for acquiring the product / service
Trigger Trigger for usage of the product
Environment Environment such as other equipment that impacts product use
Uses All the different uses of the product / service
Misuses Unintended ways the product is used
Workarounds Workarounds, where product limitations are overcome by the user
Problems Types of problem encountered
Process The users process of working
Underlying Codes
Emotion Emotions including satisfaction, enthusiasm, frustration, humour (indicating ‘white lies’ and gloss)
Humor Smiles and jokes often give clues that customers are thinking something different from what they are saying
Contradictions Contradictions (disjunctures, gloss, over-generalizations, claims of idiosyncrascy)
Culture What are the characteristics of the culture of our customers

The top-level codes typically indicate limitations with the current products and services in use, whereas the underlying codes point to emotional factors driving (or hindering) product use. These emotional factors and their causes tend to point towards new products, services or features that answer customers’ hidden needs.


Hidden needs analysis techniques provide commercial life science organizations with insights that go way beyond the voice of the customer and can help companies break out of the “innovation trap” where only incremental improvements are innovated. There are of course challenges to implementing these techniques, such as analyzing the vast quantities of qualitative data produced, but once the data is analysed the insights provide a solid foundation upon which to base product and service development projects.

If you want help to uncover your customers’ hidden needs, then why not contact us today?



  1. Cass Business School. City University of London. I’ts new, it’s cool, it’s a… flop. InBusiness. Issue 15. Summer 2011. http://www.cassknowledge.com/inbusiness/feature/its-new-its-cool-its-flop. Accessed April 24, 2013.
  2. Goffin K., Varnes AJ, van der Hoven C, Koners U. Beyond the voice of the customer.  Research-Technology Management. 2012;55(4):45-53.
  3. International Telecommunication Union. The rise of 3G. The World in 2010. ICT Fact and Figures. http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/material/FactsFigures2010.pdf. Accessed April 22, 2010.
  4. Goffin, K., Lemke, F., Koners, U. Identifying Hidden Needs: Creating Breakthrough Products. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  5. Kano N, Nobuhiku S, Takahashi F, Tsuji S. Attractive quality and must-be quality. Journal of the Japanese Society for Quality Control (Japanese)1984;14(2):39-48.

1 comment

  1. Ethan Misiak

    Hello! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this write-up to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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