I recently had the opportunity to conduct usability testing of a prototype of a new eCommerce platform for one of our clients. Designing was preceded by a careful and comprehensive analytical process, during which we collected business and functional requirements for the new system. We also analyzed the materials provided by the customer, including the research of the customer’s market.

One of the first tests takes place. The user clicks, watches, analyzes … He says that he’s missing the gross price, that he doesn’t use the price comparison.  The researcher asks additional questions, the designer makes notes needed to make the change. When the interview is coming to an end, a couple of summary questions are asked:

– How do you assess what you just saw?

– Well, it’s pretty nice… but I won’t use it, I don’t need that.

There is clear confusion among the observers; the researcher dwells on the subject to get a more detailed explanation. Further tests confirm that for one of the key groups of users, the proposed system doesn’t meet the expectations. On the one hand – it’s good that this turned out at the design stage rather than after the implementation of the new system. On the other – where did we make a mistake? Why did the project fail to meet the user’s needs? After all, there was the analysis, there was data, the client actively participated in defining the functions and processes of the new system…

The explanation is simple: the needs of users were not properly defined and translated into solutions that have proven to be inadequate to the user’s situation. The result is so-called perception gap, the discrepancy between what we thought about the needs of the user, and what he/she actually needs.

What is the reason for this discrepancy? Well, in the initial phase of the project, our customer abandoned the recommended needs assessment, being convinced that he/she perfectly knows and understands them thanks to close and frequent relations with end users. Usability testing has proven it wrong.

What is the needs assessment?

The needs assessment is a study of an exploratory nature. It is used to capture and understand the expectations of an end-user (or other stakeholders). It allows us to get to know the habits of users and their expectations, fears, everyday habits, buying behavior etc. In short: change the perspective and look at the world through the eyes of the user as much as it is possible.

Such studies are carried out with the use of qualitative methods used to make the obtained information more detailed. We use techniques such as individual depth interviews (IDI) or focus group interviews (FGI), as well as ethnographic methods: observing users in their natural environment; diaries where they record their behavior etc.

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Examples of needs assessment:  FGI (focus group interview), IDI (individual depth interview), observing users’ environment

The result of the study is a report collecting insights from observations. It provides the basis for e-commerce strategy, pointing the way of further development, both at a general (a kind of designed system, its environment) and detailed level (expected functionality). It also allows combining the needs of users with customer’s business objectives and finding a common denominator for them.

Why should you prepare the needs assessment?

To put it simply: to avoid the situation described at the beginning. If you don’t know the needs of the users of the designed system, it is very likely that you’ll miss their expectations and your design at the end of the project will simply be useless.

However, needs assessment also has a number of other benefits:

  • Greater involvement of the project team – designers participating in the research process better know the recipients of their solutions. This allows to reduce the distance that exists between the designer and the user at the beginning
  • Higher design quality – solutions based on real needs actually serve the user, solving their problems and providing satisfaction with performed tasks
  • Material to generate ideas for new utilities – we collect insights and translate them into new features, expected by the user. This allows to develop a product based on the needs of its recipients
  • Higher accuracy in anticipating the needs of the user – meeting customers’ expectations raises their satisfaction, which in turn translates into more frequent use of the finished product; in effect, it gives our customer more profit
  • Reduced risk – reducing the chance of a perception gap, we help our customers to reduce the costs of implementing e-commerce solutions, capturing all the discrepancies at an early stage of a project

As you can see, the benefits related to preparing needs assessment are clear to all the parties involved in a project: from a client and a contractor, to an end-user. Therefore, we prepare it in most of our projects, adjusting the scale, methods and scope accordingly. If we create a new system and users have not yet benefited from any on-line solutions, comprehensive studies are needed using several methods. If, however, there is a redesign or modification of previously used tools, testing can be limited to a few interviews and 1-2 days of observation, allowing to define the current problems and determine the expected solution.

If we design a B2B system, we include customer’s sales representatives in the study sample: field trips and trade visits are an excellent method to get to know the business, examine existing relationships and capture the elements that require improvement. The range of solutions is wide, but one thing is certain – it does not pay to give up the needs assessment.

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