What Is the Unmet Need?

Companies are most successful when their products meet fundamental human needs. Focusing on the unmet need creates an environment for product design and communication that speaks directly to human beings.

What I learned from wraparound…

As a product manager I sensed this intuitively, but I really saw it in action when I worked on wraparound teams organized to help at-risk kids and their families. Wraparound is a non-clinical planning process not dissimilar to product management, creative problem solving, and business model design. The process is simple to describe but very difficult to pull off successfully, in part because people are not used to thinking and speaking in the language of needs.

A wraparound team is organized around the family and their natural community. The process begins by creating an inventory of the strengths of each team member. Next the team develops needs statements, and brainstorms strategies to meet those needs. The strategies are filtered to best align with the identified needs and the strengths of the team. Finally, the plan is executed and adjusted.

Sounds simple, but guess what? If the needs are not correctly articulated the strategies are rarely successful. For example, “He needs to finish high school” or “She needs to stop taking drugs” are goals and outcomes not needs. Perhaps the real unmet need is knowing he can take care of himself, or that she can experience joy. That changes the entire conversation.

Business is all about people too…

The same ideas hold true in business. Every successful product solves a problem by meeting a basic human need. Companies that understand this are able speak to customers directly about why they are in business without becoming trapped in describing  what they do and how they do it. Simon Sinek discusses this in his book, Start With Why. As Marty Cagan says in his great book for product managers, Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love:

“I find it ironic that so many of us in the product world come from science and business oriented backgrounds, yet such a large part of what we do every day is really about emotion and human psychology. Most of us may not think of our job this way, but we should.

People buy and use products largely for emotional reasons. The best marketing people understand this, and the best product people ensure that their products speak to these emotions.

… Once you have clearly identified and prioritized the dominant buying emotions your customers bring to your product, focus on that emotion and ask yourself where else they might be able to get that need met? That’s your real competition. In many cases you’ll find that the competition you should be worrying about is not the startup or big portal that’s after the same thing you are, but rather the offline alternative.”

Apple and eBay

Apple is in the business of empowering individuals. This mindset enabled them to invert the carrier/hardware equation for the entire wireless industry. I recently caught a Harvard Business Review podcast with John Donahue, CEO of eBay. He described the company as being in the business of ‘connecting buyers and sellers’. Each acquisition and product development decision is measured against this simple mission, which clearly describes the basic need the company addresses.

Imagine your company makes electric chairlifts for the elderly living at home. Think how your products and communication would differ with these two perspectives:

The elderly need to get up and down the stairs when their mobility becomes limited.

The elderly need to know they are independent and can stay connected with their family.

In the first case you might talk about the features of the chair, reliability of the motor, ease of installation, etc. In the second scenario I imagine the conversation would be quite different.

If you are not used to thinking of products, and services in terms of the needs they meet, you might want to take a look at this needs inventory courtesy of the Center For Non-Violent Communication.

The idea here is to continually ask yourself, “What need does my business meet? What problem does it solve?” It is  easy to be swept away by particular strategies and technologies. If you lose the human focus you may also lose your customers.

What do you think makes products and businesses successful? Join the conversation!