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Harness the Power of Users' Unmet Needs

Tapping the unmet needs of users is a hidden gold mine. So, what's the right approach to get that valuable information? We have a few tips.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Uncovering users' unmet needs is a superpower you can flex in UX research. In fact, unmet needs are the dream! If you can figure out your user's unmet needs, you’re on a great path to a successful product.

Most research success is centered around the concept of unmet needs. Are you…

  • Looking to create an innovative product? Look at unmet needs.
  • Trying to improve the experience? Unmet needs!
  • Wanting people to purchase or stay with your product? You guessed it, unmet needs!

Of course, achieving this is easy to say but difficult to do. So, how do we find and act on these magical unmet needs?

First, what is an "unmet need?"

Although it might feel obvious, let's align on what “unmet needs” mean. Unmet needs are something a person needs to achieve a specific goal or outcome that a product or service is not currently allowing them to do.

A need is about what’s required to achieve a specific desired outcome.

So, when it comes to unmet needs, we need to think of several other concepts:

  1. Goals. What is the person trying to achieve? What is the desired outcome or the last step in a journey?
  2. Process. What process is this person going through? There are likely unmet needs scattered through the different steps of a journey.
  3. Context. What other variables or circumstances does the person experience in context with their goal?

Let's look at an example below.

Example goal: Find a new doctor

I just moved to a new place, and my goal is to find a new doctor. To do that, I go through several stages in my process, including:

  • Researching doctors
  • Filtering for my location
  • Comparing doctors
  • Picking a doctor
  • Going to the doctor

My context is finding a doctor close to my house, with available appointments after work, and taking my particular insurance.

Keeping all of this in mind, what are some of my needs?

  • Reducing the amount of time it takes to find a relevant doctor
  • Increasing my chances of finding a doctor that works close to me and within my necessary hours
  • Minimizing the time it takes to compare different doctors
  • Reducing the likelihood of picking the wrong doctor
  • Ensuring the doctor I choose is one I would like to see again

There would be many additional needs from research, but this demonstrates the potential unmet needs a user could have.

If my overarching goal is to find this doctor and the product I’m using doesn't fulfill these needs, I’ll be frustrated and go to another product to achieve my goal. If the product only meets some of them, then there is a risk I will try to find a better product.

Either way, if the product is not helping me with my needs, I am less likely to:

  • Use the product
  • Be satisfied with it
  • Pay for it
  • Continue using it

If we look at these circumstances, they’re related to essential business metrics: acquisition, loyalty, revenue, and retention. Ignoring customers' unmet needs can severely impact a business.

How do we find unmet needs?

Now that we understand what an unmet need is, we can move on to finding them. The great news is that unmet needs are everywhere, just waiting to be discovered.

The difference between a want and a need

Before we dive into how we find unmet needs, I want to distinguish between needs and wants. For some reason, these two words are often seen as synonymous. While sometimes they feel the same, they’re different in user research.

If I say to you, "I want to read more," you could potentially go and build an app that attempts to help me read more. This app could have reminders, gamification, could buy me books every month!

Or you could create a book club subscription box to force me to read because I’d feel bad sitting in front of a group of people who haven’t completed the assignment.

But why do I want to read more? What is the actual need behind this desire?

For example, let's say I want to read more because I want to have time to relax. In that case, pinging me with notifications or forcing me to read might cause me more stress. I might try the app or product you created, but would abandon it if it doesn't fulfill that underlying need (or makes it worse).

So, whenever people say they want something, go deeper to get that underlying need. Ask them why they want something or how getting what they want would help them. With these questions, you can get past the shallow want and understand what people need.

Ignoring customers' unmet needs can severely impact a business.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier
Founder, User Research Academy

Methods you can use to find unmet needs

Big surprise: User research is the best way to find unmet needs. There are quite a few methods you can use to gather and understand these unmet needs.

Some of the approaches I use for finding unmet needs are:

Looking through existing data

Sometimes we don't need to run an extensive, new study because we already have a lot of data. I will look through previous research to see if there are unmet needs we've heard or seen in the past that we can act on without additional research.

Conducting 1x1 interviews

The bread and butter of unmet needs is the most common method I use. Interviews are a great way to have a conversation and dig deeper into what people need.

Mapping the customer journey

Journey mapping takes us through the process people go through. It helps us dive into what isn't working, or what needs come up for each stage. This is another great way to address unmet needs.

Creating mental models

Mental models represent a person's thought process for how something works. These also help us understand how people operate in the world and what tasks and needs they associate with completing a goal.

Running usability tests

Usability tests are a great way to figure out where there are mismatched or misaligned expectations. If people struggle with accomplishing tasks or are confused by the experience, there is a good chance the product/experience does not meet their underlying needs.

Testing content

Content testing is a great way to determine whether your copy or language aligns with what users need to make decisions.

With these approaches, you can dial into the unmet needs of your users.

How to identify unmet needs in interviews

So, how do you identify what an unmet need might be during an interview? Here are a few ideas:


Workarounds occur when a person uses a product in a vastly different way than intended to make an unsatisfactory experience work for them. When someone does this, the product is not efficiently fulfilling a need, so they have to find a way around it to accomplish their goal.

For example, I watched many users hack a platform to bulk download photos because otherwise the system made them download over 100 photos one at a time. The hack likely took them the same amount of time as downloading each individually, but was much more gratifying.

Barriers or pain points

Anytime someone has a hard time achieving a goal, there’s a possibility of an unmet need. Finding barriers and pain points is essential to understanding what people are trying to accomplish and why.

For example, many users were dropping off a travel website before purchasing a flight. One of their barriers was that they couldn't compare different flight prices easily on our product. The need to find the best price for them was unmet.

High cognitive load

Wherever a product is confusing or tortures a user through an experience, it’s a great place to dig for unmet needs. If it takes someone a long time to understand how to use a product, the product is not aligned with the mental model.

For example, when testing content about a travel membership, none of the participants could explain the value of the content and what it meant. That represented a high cognitive load.

Misaligned expectations

When users say something is easy and can't accomplish the task, this is a great place to understand the mismatch between say and do.

For example, quite a few participants told me how great a new feature was, but when they did a task, they ignored the feature and used a workaround. When a user says something but does something else, we can dig deeper into their decision-making process.


Wants are a great starting place for needs. Whenever someone says something they want, take that as a cue to dig deeper to find what they actually need.

During the sessions, if I hear any of the above mentioned, I make a note to dig deeper and look into the unmet need during synthesis.

By digger deeper, I mean asking questions like:

  • Workarounds and barriers/pain points: "What are you trying to accomplish with these actions?" or "What is the ideal outcome?"
  • High cognitive load and misaligned expectations: "What about this is confusing?" or "How would you better explain this in your words?" or "How does this stop you from accomplishing X goal?"
  • Wants: "Why do you want X?" or "What are you trying to accomplish with [want]?"

You might feel overwhelmed by the amount of unmet needs once you identify them. In one study, I found 150 unmet needs.

The best next step is to prioritize them to ensure you focus on the most impactful needs. Check out this article which explains how to prioritize those needs.

Overall, findings and understanding of unmet needs can lead to significant improvements and innovation. In doing so, you’ll ensure you’re conducting the most impactful user research for your organization.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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