The Voice of the Customer Part 3: Digging Below the Surface with Implied Needs

In the previous blog on the Voice of the Customer (VoC), we looked at stated needs, which are the most obvious way in which the customer conveys their needs regarding products and services. In this blog, we’ll look at implied needs, which are the needs the customer does not articulate because they consider them too obvious to mention. For example, customers won’t articulate that they need a washing machine to clean clothes, but they assume that it will. When implied needs become subtle, it can be easy to miss significant opportunities to meet customer requirements. 

While the VoC tools for collecting stated needs have their origins in traditional marketing and sales techniques, those for collecting implied needs have their origins in the fields of psychology, philosophy, ethnography, and data science. This section provides a brief introduction to some of the most common methods for implied needs. Organizations should use a complementary set of methods for both stated and implied needs. 

Lead User Process 

Lead user process relies on the expertise of early adopters and thought leaders, what are known as “lead users.” Lead users are attuned to their needs and can often anticipate the needs of the rest of the market months or even years ahead of time. Users who lag behind lead users often do not have the deep experience to contextualize their needs when providing standard marketing feedback using the standard methods for stated needs.  

Researchers should use multiple methods for gathering both stated and implied needs from lead users. They should then analyze the information to design new product attributes, create marketing and communication plans for delivering that solution to a future market, and shaping that market to anticipate its future wants and needs.  

Typology of Customer Value 

The relationship a consumer has with a product can be extremely deep and contextualized, with many different influences impacting its perceived value. Holbrook’s (Holbrook, 1996) Typology of Customer Value is a way of organizing and expressing these complex relationships in a way that allows product designers to understand better the dynamics of these relationships. The Typology of Customer Value demonstrates that customers make judgements about products and services as they engage with them, and that the concept of value reflects the entire experience. There are three components of customer value: 

  1. Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic: Extrinsic value considers the customer experience as a means to an end. Intrinsic value means the experience is valued for what it is and that it’s the experience, not what the experience produces, that has the primary value. 
  1. Self vs. Other: Self-oriented consumption measures value according to what it can do only for the consumer as an individual. Other-oriented consumption focuses on the ways in which the product or service is valued by others and the impact it will have on people beyond the immediate consumer. 
  1. Active vs. Reactive: Active consumption looks at the influence of the customer over the product, while reactive looks at the influence of the product over the customer. 

Table 1 shows an example of how these components are organized so that researchers can analyze the ways in which customers value the product experience. For example, to articulate the self-oriented, active, extrinsic form of value, the organization can ask, “How can I make this product or service more convenient for my customers?” To explore the other-oriented, reactive, extrinsic form of value, ask, “How can I enhance my customer’s reputation if he or she owns this product or uses this service?” Stepping through each of the eight combinations can unveil new insight into the customer’s implied needs, which can then be incorporated into everything from product design to marketing and sales approaches. 

  Extrinsic Intrinsic 
Self-Oriented Active Efficiency (Convenience) Play (Fun) 
Reactive Excellence (Quality) Aesthetics (Beauty) 
Other-Oriented Active Status (Success, Impression, Management) Ethics (Justice, Virtue, Morality) 
Reactive Esteem (Reputation, Possessions) Spirituality (Faith, Ecstasy, Sacredness) 

Table 1. Holbrook’s Typology of Customer Value. 

Prosumerism and Customization 

Prosumerism is a practice in which consumption and production are not opposites but are instead one multi-faceted practice in everyday life. In the 1980s, prosumerism described customers performing tasks that were usually done by commercial producers, such as growing their own food. In contemporary prosumerism, consumers blend the categories of production and consumption seamlessly. For example, when someone purchases ingredients to make food and then sells that food, they are both consuming and producing. Most importantly, they are consuming for the purpose of creating a new product because they have identified a market opportunity that they can fill.  

Customizing existing products is another important manifestation of prosumerism. If someone purchases a new car, but then replaces the wheels with a multi-coloured set, upgrades the stereo, and gives it a custom racing stripe, they have consumed the new product knowing that it does not actually meet their requirements, and have then consumed other products, such as the wheels and the stereo, so that they can make the car into the product that actually suits their needs. This can lead to communities of practice that produce videos, recipes, blogs, and tutorials on customization, each of which can be extremely valuable sources of information that researchers can use to explore the ways in which prosumption helps to meet the deeper needs of consumers. People who consume raw materials to make their own goods or to customize existing products are demonstrating that they have a strong sense of what their needs are and that those needs are not currently being met by existing products. 

New and customized products, as well as the documentary artifacts from communities of practice, provide extremely valuable sources of information for organizations that are researching the implied needs of VoC. 

Experience Sampling 

Experience sampling is based on the idea that knowing the customer means knowing them in the context of their lives and their environment. This can help product designers gain a deeper understanding of the ways in which consumers incorporate products and services into their overall lived experience. In experience sampling, consumers use a digital interface to answer questions that researchers put to them at various points during the day. The questions could relate to details about what the subject is doing, who they are with, how they are feeling, or anything that could provide researchers with additional insight into how consumers spend their time and navigate their environment. This insight can help organizations gain a deeper understanding of their customers and how to meet their implied and unstated needs and wants.  

Repertory Grid 

The repertory grid is an interview technique that reveals both conscious and unconscious factors that influence how consumers perceive the value of a product or service. Researchers can also use the results to understand larger organizational dynamics and relationships between individuals within an organization. The main value of this method is that it can be used to identify unique and uncommon quality attributes. 

A repertory grid has three components:  

  • Elements represent the products, services, or people to be discussed.  
  • Constructs represent how the subject views the elements. Each construct contains a positive or desired attribute (“product provides high customization”) and a contrast (“product provides no customization”).  
  • Links rate each construct along a scale, e.g. 1 for the positive element and 5 for the contrast, with the numbers in between representing an assessment somewhere between the two extremes.  
Ergonomic Studies 

Ergonomic studies can be an excellent way to learn about the unstated ways in which products and services have physical impacts on customers. This insight can be particularly useful in industries that require extensive amounts of physical labor, such as construction and manufacturing. Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WMSDs) are often the consequence of poor equipment design, and ergonomic studies are therefore an important method for meeting the consumer need for a safer and healthier workplace. 

The Prevention through Design (PtD) initiative by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is a research program that explores risks of poor ergonomic design and workplace safety. PtD uses three forms of data collection that cover both stated and implied needs: 

  • Self-assessments allow participants to respond to questions using questionnaires and interviews. This is often the least effective method, since responses can be imprecise and unreliable, and respondents may be unaware of the stresses that impact them. 
  • Observational ethnography allows researchers to evaluate workers on the job site. While this method has a strong data collection approach, it is often impractical and expensive. 
  • Direct measurement using sensors attached directly to customers’ bodies is the most accurate and effective method of data collection, because it provides a constant and unmediated flow of data to track movements and physical parameters in every moment. Unfortunately, not all factors should be measured directly. For example, direct measurement of spinal forces can be very insightful, but it is medically impractical to insert sensors into a customer’s spinal column to get information about a product’s impact on the body. 
A/B Testing 

A/B testing is a familiar method for experimenting with user experience design on websites. In a typical example, the website provides two options to the website visitor: A is the current version of the website messaging; and B is a modified version of the current version that tries something new. Customers are assigned randomly to one of the two versions and asked which of the two they prefer. The results can help researchers and product designers discover whether there is a difference in preference between A and B. Even when customers might not be able to articulate their preferences on a survey, or effectively choose between options, an A/B test can serve as a powerful indicator of overall priorities. 

Semantic Differential Technique 

Semantic Differential Technique allows users to record their reaction to an object or concept using a scale that moves between two opposing terms, such as cold/hot, bright/dark, etc. The Semantic Differential Technique builds on the philosophical and linguistic distinctions between objects and representations and can illuminate connections of which customers themselves are unaware, such as the emotional responses a particular color of car can invoke—reflecting, for example, anger or hostility. 

Kansei Engineering 

“Kansei” is a Japanese word similar in meaning to “affect” in English, representing the feelings aroused by direct sensory perceptions or by imagining a product or service. (Schutte, 2014) Kansei attempts to measure human emotional responses by creating a controlled “VoCabulary” of terms that subjects can use to express their needs and feelings. By soliciting emotional responses, and not simply asking customers to provide lists of product features they would like, abstract ideals are represented as tangible features that will provide the emotional response the customer seeks. 

Kansei Engineering uses four approaches to capturing and classifying VoC: (Huang et al., 2012) 

  • Physiological monitoring allows researchers to monitor emotions based on physical responses such as pulse rate, as well as electrical brain activity by means of an electroencephalogram (EEG). 
  • Interviews in which researchers can ask subjects questions like, “How would you describe this product?” using the kansei words to express their responses.  
  • Inductive card sorts present participants with a series of concepts or objects and asks them to sort these according to the natural categories that seem to present themselves.  
  • Semantic differential technique, described above. 

Kansei engineering is typically applied in new product development, although it can also be applied for continuous improvement or innovation. 

Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET) 

The ZMET uses visual images to inspire subjects to associate words or feelings with concepts or objects. The premise of ZMET is that human cognition is structured around visual images, and that visual metaphors are key to accessing the structure of that cognition. This technique is often used in counseling situations where trauma prevents an individual from describing feelings directly. In these cases, insights into feelings and fears can emerge when the subject chooses pictures to reflect their emotional state or tells stories about what he or she sees in the pictures. Zaltman and Coulter (1995) explain that this method can uncover underlying emotional and cognitive factors from groups of customers. 


Implied needs can be difficult to find but can generate a wealth of information about customer requirements that are easy to miss or take for granted. Many of the techniques discussed here can help you pin down unspoken customer requirements and provide deeper satisfaction for customers using your products and services. 

In the next installment of our Voice of the Customer series, we’ll look at collecting silent needs of which even the customer might not be aware. 


Anderson, K. “Ethnographic Research: A Key to Strategy,” Harvard Business Review, March 2009, accessed June 8, 2018,

Bevan, N. (2009, August). What is the difference between the purpose of usability and user experience evaluation methods. In Proceedings of the Workshop UXEM (Vol. 9, pp. 1-4). 

Holbrook, M. B. (1996). Special Session Summary Customer Value, A Framework for Analysis and Research. Advances in Consumer Research, 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr. Provo, UT: Association for Consumer research, 138-142. 

Huang, Yuexiang et al. “Products classification in emotional design using a basic-emotion based semantic differential method.” International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 42, 2012, 569-580. 

Ladner, S. (2014). A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector, London, Routledge. 

Macnamara, Jim. “Toward a Theory and Practice of Organizational Listening.” International Journal of Listening. 32, 2018, 1-33. 

Mann, S., Nolan, J., & Wellman, B. (2002). Sousveillance: Inventing and using wearable computing devices for data collection in surveillance environments. Surveillance & society, 1(3), 331-355. 

Schutte, S. T. et al. “Concepts, methods and tools in Kansei Engineering.” Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, Vol. 5, No. 3, May-June 2014, 214-231. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.