Paul Harwood & Tina Nayak

How to Understand Users' Unmet Needs

Understanding the unmet needs of users is critical for startup success.

 Without it you will struggle to attain sustained user growth.

"Build it, and they will come" - while it worked for Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, it will not work for your startup. 

In reality, its not what you build, it's who you build it for. 

You need to build something that people need. Something that people find value in using.

 In short, understanding your users gives you the ability to build products and provide services that meet peoples' needs, provide utility, and serve currently unmet use cases. Whether you're working on user adoption, or trying to figure out retention, understanding users' attitudes and behaviors is essential.

You need to understand what makes users tick.

It is critical.

But how do you understand what makes your users tick? 

In this article, we answer these two questions, and provide the how-to skills to allow you, and members of your startup team, to conduct foundational user understanding research, irrespective of your startup's budget. 

We'll explore the various methods - qualitative and quantitative - you can apply to understand what makes users tick, so by the end of this article, you’ll have the necessary knowledge to be empowered to understand what makes your users tick, and put your startup on the path to attaining sustained user growth. 

How to Identify User Needs: The power of listening

Identifying user needs is crucial for any startup wanting to succeed within today's competitive and VC risk-averse market. Irrespective of whether you apply qualitative user interviews or quantitative surveys, one thing remains a constant: the necessity to listen. 

Listening is key

Many startup founders want to "talk" to users, but talking- beyond asking a question - doesn't actually enable you to understand what makes users tick, and learn what users' unmet needs are. To identify user needs, you must listen. 

Methods for understanding user needs

There are several methods you and your team can use to identify and understand user unmet needs.

In-depth Interviews (IDIs)

First, you could conduct in-depth interviews (IDIs) with your users and potential users.
This qualitative approach provides valuable insights into users' thoughts, preferences, and perceived pain points. By asking a handful of well-crafted questions - you don't want it to seem like the Spanish Inquisition- you can learn the user's pain points, and understand their unmet needs that your product or service can help solve. 

You can learn what makes your users tick. You just need to listen. 

Also, you don't need to 'speak' to many people either... as long as you listen

As few as 5-6 interviews can generate actionable results

Furthermore, you don't need to conduct a half day session with each user either. 

30-45 minutes is more than enough time to gauge a user's unmet needs, and these interviews can be conducted in-person, over the phone, or online via a video -conferencing tool (e.g. Zoom). .

Remember to get a user's written consent. Interviewees are going to share their experiences, their ideas on how your product could be improved to provide greater utility. You want to be clear on how what they share may be used. Your startup's lawyer could provide you with a consent form, or you could adapt our template that we provide clients which we're sharing here. 

Last, offer an incentive. People are taking time out of their day, so provide some appreciation of their time.

As long as you do your homework, craft specific questions, and actively listen to users' responses, you and your startup will gain actionable insights on users' unmet needs and their product expectations.


Second, you could field a survey.

Surveys provide generalizable results. 

Actionable insights about a particular population (e.g. churned users, new users). 

To get the most out of any survey though, it's best to first conduct some in-depth interviews. 

Doing so will help you create survey questions that users understand. While interviews don't just provide generalizable insights on what users' unmet needs are - after all you're only 'listening' to several users, the richness of the users' voice is invaluable. You learn how users describe the way they apply your current product, the words they use to describe their unmet needs- all valuable insights when you and your team are writing your survey questions.

As with in-depth interviews, don't ask too many questions. 

Remember you're asking people to take time out of their day to answer your survey questions, so only ask the important questions, ones that will be immediately actionable by your team.

Types of survey questions that you can use.

There are closed questions - questions where you provide a list of responses for a survey participant to select from. 

Closed questions may ask the participant to agree or disagree with a statement, rate their level of satisfaction, select from a list what attributes are most important or best describe the benefit they get from using your product or service, or their motivation for first trying your product. 

There are also open-ended questions. These questions allow a user to answer in their own words. Use open-ended questions sparingly, and never use them as a surrogate for qualitative research. 

Open-ended are best seen as questions that allow a survey participant to elaborate on the response they provided to a closed-ended question. "Why did you say...?" Providing a frame of expectation is very useful when crafting questions. Show that you value your users time, by saying "In a few sentences, why did you say..." Set that you have the expectation of a few sentences, you're not expecting a sequel to War and Peace.

User Feedback

Third, you can analyze user feedback. This is an especially effective way to identify user needs, as a lot of feedback directly involves issues with unmet needs. Such feedback can be collected through various channels such as online reviews, social media posts, and automated user support chats. By studying such feedback sources, your startup can uncover common issues, complaints, and desires that current users have, which can inform product or service enhancements... but always remember that these feedback are helping you understand what makes your current user tick, and be ticked off. It doesn't provide insights on how your product can meet the needs of potentially new users. 

Markets Matter: Don't forget 

Whatever method you apply, it's important to recognize that needs differ by market.

If you conduct a survey in Germany, you have insights on German users, not all your users.
A user need that is most important in Germany may not, for example, be as important in Indonesia. It's important therefore to conduct user research often, and across markets. 

By getting under the hood in your various target markets, and recognizing the challenges or problems users face there, and understanding their desired outcomes, your team can design better user centered solutions that meet user unmet needs. And, by addressing these unmet needs, and responding to them efficiently, can lead to not only increased user satisfaction, loyalty, but also a path toward sustained user growth. 

Remember, all you really have to do is take some time and listen. 

Listening is the key to success when it comes to understanding your users. 

Types of User Needs

When it comes to understanding users, and building sustainable user growth, it is crucial to identify and meet unmet needs.

Just as there are several ways you can begin to understand users, there are several broad types of user needs that startups should consider.


Functionality is a basic requirement for any product or service. 

A product needs to meet a particular utility.  

Functionality can take many forms, from reliability to portability. For example, if a user selects a messaging platform for their business, their functionality needs will no doubt include reliability of service. A service that is always crashing just isn't going to meet a user's need. Likewise, a handheld device to be used by deskless workers will need to have great portability to meet its functional needs. 

Trust and Safety

Beyond functionality, users need to feel safe and have a sense of trust in a product or service, and its associated Brand. For example, a user may decide not to adopt a particular app because the password length asked for during sign-up is not long enough to allow them to feel confident and happy about sharing their data with the product or service.   

Social desirability 

Social desirability may seem a weird unmet user need, but we all seek to 'fit in', and for a sense of belonging, affiliation, and recognition. A user, for example, may apply a particular product or service to show they belong to a certain social group, or to have certain a particular socio-political worldview, such as valuing a their local community or a particular political party/ideology. 


Every user is unique. 

It's so important to remember that we are all different, so each person will have their own individual needs and preferences. Such needs can be driven by hobbies, personal interests and lifestyle choices. For example, a user who is passionate about anime may have specific needs for getting greater utility from a favorite social media app or streaming service. 

By understanding user needs - met and unmet- and determining how best to cater to these various types of user needs, startups can develop products and services that truly meet the demands of their target markets. 


Understanding users isn't easy.  

It's repetitive, it's not sexy, and it takes time. But, the time taken is so rewarding as it allows you and your team to build a product or service people actually want: a product or service that users will apply to help solve a real-world problem. 

So, do you understand your users? 

If not, what are you waiting for?

 Go get listening! 
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