Notes on Needfinding: Co-Creating the Future

After interviewing over 70 farmers with my team, I thought I would do a quick writeup on the process of needfinding.

Needfinding is the process of uncovering the real and unarticulated needs of your consumers.

Why is understanding your consumers important? In Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, Scharmer describes value creation of having shifted from “push (product driven) to pull (service driven) to co-creating (presencing).” Increasingly, corporations are going back to the consumers to get an idea of consumers’ felt experience of their products. Products and services are increasingly created in close collaboration with consumers. An understanding of whom you are designing with creates greater value and engagement with your end-users. Last, it ensures you are solving an actual need, not an assumed one.

Just some of the farmers we had the privilege of interviewing. When I look at these portraits, I can’t help but feel a deep reverence for those that I interviewed.

I have primarily been informed on the process of needfinding from Jan Chipchase’s The Field Study Handbook. The premise is a guidebook on how to conduct ethnographic research. Below are some bullet points for what is important when undergoing needfinding:

  1. Incremental Rapport Building
    • An interview will go many stages. The first step is to build rapport with your interviewee. Everything matters when you are conducting empathy interviews. You usually arrive in a zone of ambivalence where the interviewee neither trusts or rejects you. At this time, being human by exchanging names of everyone and establishing intention will inch you closer to crossing the trust threshold. It is also important not to overstep with your questions at the beginning. Asking the extremely personal without having sufficient rapport can suddenly jolt you into the rejection threshold.
    • One effective way we built rapport was by starting with a guided tour of their farm. Time spent here meant extra rapport points built. Many of our interviews were done in their farms, away from the distraction of curious family and community members.
    • Once formalities are out of the way, you can kick off your interview with a warm-up question such as, “What are you earliest memories on the farm?” or “Describe to us your journey to becoming a farmer.”
  2. Confirming Availability
    • What we found was that double confirming their availability for the duration of the interview before starting the interview nearly entirely prevents your interviewees leaving midway. This makes sense because Robert Cialdini says in his book Influence, “Once we make a choice or take a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.”
  3. Permission for recording
    • Permission for any recordings or video/photo should be asked at the beginning to be respectful of the interviewee’s privacy. A short explanation of how the recording will be used can be given. If permission is not asked, professional cameras and equipment can be intimidating and turn an interview sour.
    • These recordings will ensure you can extract exact quotes for presentations and reports.
  4. Appropriate Team
    • The maximum team size should be no greater than four. The ideal is two or three. Any more can intimidate an interviewee. A team can consist of a leader interviewer, a dedicated note-taker, and a translator.
  5. Interview Setup
    • Your sitting arrangement will matter. Sitting directly across can mean for a confrontation. Sitting at a slight 60 degree angle with a shared view between the interviewee and lead interviewer better facilitates interactions.
  6. Five Why’s
    • The Five Why’s is asking “why” five times in order to dig to the guttural emotions or meanings of what your interviewees are saying. We’ve asked the Five Why’s to proud uncles, old grandpas, and grandmas. The biggest regret after an interview is usually not probing deeper.
    • Expressing ignorance at seemingly obvious topics can give your participant the opportunity to explain their culture and context in their own words versus presuming knowledge. Further, asking the obvious questions can set up the participant the honor of being a guide to their culture; a role we’ve seen people love to take on.
  7. Neutral questions
    • Make sure your questions are neutral and not leading! A leading question would be, “With all the known difficulties of farming like debt and climate-dependency, why do you still farm?” A gentler question such as, “How do you feel about being a farmer?” The former question feeds answers into their mouths, revealing our bias for a certain type of answer. These biases can creep into your interviews so it is important to practice asking neutral questions!
  8. Embracing raw and emotional responses
    • Many of our interviews involved tears and pain as farmers described their lives to us. These are incredibly raw and vulnerable moments and show that the interviewee feels passionately or strongly about something.
    • It is the job of the lead interviewer to recognize these emotions with empathy, listen, and not necessarily shy away from questions. These raw moments are opportunities for the interviewee to express their strong emotions. In needfinding, these are the moments I think back to, that revealed to me that unaddressed and raw, real needs of our participants.
  9. Being Comfortable with Long Pauses
    • After asking ‘why’, it is okay to have a long pause (though this is culturally dependent). These periods of silence gives participants the opportunity to germinate more reflective and thoughtful responses.
  10. Deliberate False Repetition
    • I would be amiss if I didn’t mention this sly technique! Sometimes your participants may give you inaccurate information or lie. For example, you are interviewing a mother in a household and she said that she always does the dishes. Later in the interview, you can say, “You mentioned just before that you sometimes do the dishes.” She would then go on to correct you and gives you an opportunity to gently ask for evidence. This technique can be incredibly useful in confirming wealth, an often private matter in some cultures.
  11. Encouraging Expansion
    • One of my favorite lines is to ask, “Could you tell me more about that?”
  12. Social Parity
    • In one of our interviews, we had our local guide who was a respected figure in the community act in as a translator. The results were horrendous. The farmer would say comments like, “I am unable to leave the farm like you have done. You have done so well. This is a life for me.” Social parity is important when conducting interviews to make sure there is no disdain, awe, or extreme reverence that would impact their responses to questions.
    • As Chipchase says it is the role of the interviewer to “lower or raise their socio-economic status to better match that of the interviewee.” This could come in the form of finding commonality or dressing similar brands as your participants.
  13. Compensation
    • Many of the farmers we interviewed were of very low socio-economic class. Time away from their farm meant less money earned that day. At times, this opportunity cost for them can cause tension and stress. A fair compensation at normal wage standards given at the beginning can partially alleviate that. Compensation can also direct attention away from those seeking handouts. Some of the farmers we interviewed were motivated by what possible handouts they could receive from an interaction with us. Establishing intention and with compensation can quell hidden intentions for handouts from overtaking an interview.
  14. Snowball recruiting
    • After the interview is over, you can thank your participants for their time, tell them how you will follow up if that is in the plan, and ask if they know anybody else you could interview. Participants will often go to extraordinary lengths to help you find your next participant; taking upon themselves as your guide in their landscape.
  15. Unpacking interviews
    • It is important to distinguish between observations and inferences. An empathy map can help with that.
  16. Affinity mapping
    • The last part of needfinding is affinity mapping which helps to turn the massive amounts of data collected from interviews into insights and wisdom. See my other article for how this process is done.
Our home makeshift studio where we continued affinity mapping.

Immersion in the worlds of your users can be exhausting, life-changing, and inspiring. The moments after an interview can be filled with emotion whether you just interviewed a power grabbing middle class politician to a grieving mother struggling to make a living from daily wage labor. It is in these moments, that your world opens wide, your heart perspires, and you find yourself falling into a larger cosmos of human experience and condition.

Which is why it is important to remember to check in with your team daily. Together, you will have to hustle through unexpected situations and experience a process where knowledge and learning emerges from the future as it unfolds. It is your job as the lead designer to, as Scharmer says, to bend “the collective beam of attention back toward its source,” and invite your team members to co-create the future with you.


Donald is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Alaap in Champawat, Uttarakhand. For his Fellowship project, he is designing a business model for a social enterprise combating climate change and poverty through reforestation and sustainable livelihoods generation in the rural Himalayas. Donald recently graduated from a dual degree program in physics and in materials science engineering. As an undergraduate, he participated in three summer research internships, two being in Japan and Austria, in topics ranging from flexible electronics to designing transducers for quantum computing. His interests include appropriate and affordable technology, sustainable urban infrastructure development, and human centered design. He has participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship program in Jaipur for his Hindi. His most recent project is designing and implementing a six kilometer water distribution system for two villages in the Ait Bayoud Commune of Morocco. He will be joining the AIF Clinton Fellowship to work closely with communities in the Himalayas and to define and create impact metrics for an early-phase social enterprise.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Join Us

Stay up to date on the latest news and help spread the word.

Get Involved

Our regional chapters let you bring the AIF community offline. Meet up and be a part of a chapter near you.

Join a Chapter

Help us help those in need.

Subscribe to newsletter

Skip to content