Unarticulated user needs

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These days, technology is advancing faster than user needs evolve to require the technology. In complex adaptive systems, we are working on getting panels of users to continuously record observations, frustrations, day to day issues using SenseMaker® (our software product).

Unarticulated user needs journalling is an alternative to enrich user stories, by enabling continuous mapping of user experiences in dynamic, rich and interactive ways. This is a way of conducting multiple parallel probes - continuous mapping of unarticulated needs and looking for clusters of needs, then putting prototyping teams to work on the cluster to see if it is worth addressing the need discovered.


This concept touches on the idea that needs can only be articulated in context. Often people don’t have sufficient knowledge of the capability of technology to imagine, let alone articulate what is possible. Often, the expert doesn’t fully understand what unarticulated needs can be achieved either.

There are many factors which distort articulations of needs. Simply asking “What do you need?” means that people fall into patterns of entrained thinking, or respond based on what they think they ought to want, or are limited by what they think is possible. Other factors included inattentional blindness and privileging our most recent memories. These psychological phenomena are simply part of what we are as humans; they have to be worked with rather than overcome.

How to draw out unarticulated user needs

Gaining a sense of unarticulated user needs requires ethnography - watching, listening, and understanding people in their own context. It is about dealing with the day-to-day experiences and then seeking to transform them.

Highlighted below are three Complex facilitation methods or SenseMaker® approaches that help to explore unarticulated user needs:

Ritual dissent and silent listening: Both these methods involve a presenter explaining their idea to silence, then being placed in a position where they cannot respond as their audience discuss (silent listening) or attack (ritual dissent) the idea. By not being able to respond you listen more deeply, you pay attention to things you might otherwise gloss over. Four or five rounds of that and you are scanning significantly more information that on the first round.


SenseMaker® enables capturing day to day experiences through journaling over large populations and look for patterns in those experiences, in particular looking at outliers, for evidence of an unstated need. The supporting narrative allows the right contextual stimulus for the capability providers to see novel uses for existing capability. In more advanced applications we can also capture the capabilities without any knowledge of the application and then fuse the databases to show patterns of emergent possibility worthy of investigation. We work with the distributed nature and partial perception of human sense-making to our advantage. Attempts to create ideal process or behavioural characteristics in contrast are less successful.


Blog posts

Related concepts


Dave provides an example in this blog: * Dave Snowden, Unarticulated needs: context | Cognitive Edge Blog (December 16, 2016)