Stop looking for your customers’ “changing needs”

News 29.08.17

Stop looking for your customers’ “changing needs”

Needs don’t change. Needs are basic. The thing that changes is how we satisfy those needs. And, yes, those means of satisfying needs are certainly changing.

Take food.

We need food. At the most basic level, we need a balance of nutrients and carbohydrates. But these nutrients are more satisfying, when they taste good. And, depending on the diet fad of the moment, these nutrients are lactose free, fat free, sugar free, gluten free, vegan, vegetarian, hi fat, palaeolithic, fast, slow, locally sourced and so on. Politically, it would be nice if the food is ecological, sustainably produced, fair-trade etc.

Over and beyond nutrients and carbohydrates, however, these are not needs. These are wants.

Ditto for home entertainment. People have a need to be engaged. Being bored leads to imagination and creativity or, in the case of teenagers, to a temper tantrum and lethargy. But the need is to keep our mind engaged. Living in caves, we sat around the fire and grunted each other stories.

Over time this primitive form of home entertainment evolved and was best met by television. Instead of having to tell a story or read a book, someone else acted it out for us. We were entertained. Today, we have a choice of screens to keep us entertained, because we don’t like to be bored. Our need is to have our brain stimulated. Of course, considering what is on TV, it is quite obvious that our need for stimulation has a very low bar.

We have a need for social interaction. Today, we can interact through the little screens we all carry with us. The way to interact has changed. But the need it satisfies is exactly the same as it has always been. Humans need to interact with other humans to find meaning in their lives.

Unfortunately, humans also have other needs. Recognition is something that easily converts to vanity, which social media only exposes too clearly. Likes on a post are like a drug. Combine this with our cognitive bias of sharing only positive news, leads to the impression that everyone else’s life is better than our own.

Saving energy is a need. Humans have always been physically active machines doing hard work to survive. Until work became office work, being physically lazy was a means of conserving energy, safe in the knowledge that remaining lazy was never going to happen. Now it does continuously and therefore physical laziness along with contradictory dietary advice has led to an explosion of obesity.

Over-riding this need of conserving energy, to lead a physically active life, requires discipline. Which admittedly most people aren’t good at, because discipline is not a need. Discipline has always been provided by circumstances, because staying alive is an over-riding need.

And so on.

Thus, we cannot be discovering human needs, or even to describe them as evolving. Our needs are hard-wired and are not evolving anywhere. How to meet those needs, is the key to innovation and customer satisfaction.

In some ways, the way the to satisfy our needs follows the Olympian moto of Citius, Altius, Fortius. A new phone that does more better, is better. A faster flight, a bigger apartment, fancier clothes. Until it hits a wall of self-preservation and rational thought: a faster flight costs more and pollutes more, a bigger apartment takes longer to clean and requires more maintenance, fancier clothes are more expensive.

At some point, enough is enough. And good enough may actually be good enough. So in a way, you could say that the big challenge is actually understanding which needs compete with other needs in humans and how these needs are complimented by our cognitive biases, which are similarly hard-wired into our behaviour on the presumption that we still live in hunter-gatherer groups in a dangerous natural world.

Marketing has effectively exploited cognitive biases, such as the decoy effect to get people to buy more: offer two sizes of soda and people may choose the smaller one; but offer a third even larger size, and people may choose what is now the medium option.

Innovation in services or products means improving the means of meeting people’s needs. In other words, making things work intuitively, predictably and continuously improving. Don’t, however, presume that needs have changed but do keep in mind human behaviour biases, which explains in many ways, why people often don’t do what is good for them.