Discovering Latent Needs Through Creative Research

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Latent needs were famously described by the late, great business tycoon Henry Ford. Immortalised in the words “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse” the concept of latent needs implies that customers don’t always know what they want. It is the crux of innovation – to discover and create brand new products and services for widespread consumption.

The car, of course, is an early example of this. A more modern iteration is the iPod – a portable music storage device that was, for its time, revolutionary. It kick-started a new booming industry, and now it is difficult to image a world without phones and music players without inbuilt storage.

But creating new innovations, and developing the next iPod is no easy feat. Not every company will have the breakthrough moment that Apple had. But, with careful, deliberate and creative research it is possible to identify your customers’ latent needs. By addressing these, you will be able to more effective serve your market and, importantly, maintain a sustainable competitive advantage. So, how exactly can you discover these tricky, unarticulated needs?

Online Qual Tools

Online qualitative research tools are an incredible source of creativity and innovation. By facilitating a group environment where many of the physical barriers to participation are removed, it is possible to generate thought provoking ideas that are built on over the course of a research session. But how exactly is it possible to use this to form the foundation for products even participants may not know that they want?

The simplest answer is simply group participation. By effectively probing participants when necessary, and allowing creative ideas to form, a research session can take on a life of its own. As participants begin to share ideas, problems and solutions it is not common for them to work towards a common goal, and identify their own unconscious needs along the way.

The core skill, as a researcher, that is required to effectively use online qual tools in this way is the careful guidance towards action oriented solutions. Participants may easily identify a multitude of fantastical, creative solutions that lack feasibility or mass market appeal. Thus, striking a balance between creative freedom and research objectives is a key critical measure of the session’s success.

Digital Scrapbooks

One tool in particular that can aid in the creative process is a digital scrapbook. At FlexMR we developed the ScrapbookMR tool to build their own scrapbooks. These are visual representations of ideas and feelings that may not directly hold the answers to your next innovation, but certainly provide a guiding light.

Building on the success of Pinterest, and visual forms of customer engagement, digital scrapbooks are a freeform method of generating insight that can be both informational, and abstract. By inviting participants to create mood board style pages, it is possible to not only innovate on a physical level, but also at a brand level – driving the key values that appear through abstracted, representational imagery.


One tool that is more direct to its problem solving approach is online brainstorming. This puts customers at the very heart of your innovation process, and invites them to generate their own ideas for products, features and attributes. Most importantly, however, is the group nature to this research method.

Forbes notes the importance of the group element to brainstorming, stating that while individuals may come up with different ideas, the variety of assemblages that these can make in a group environment is far greater than a single mind. To make the most of online brainstorming, we would recommend ensuring you follow the steps below:

  1. Invite participants to suggest individual ideas
  2. Ask participants to generate further ideas based those available
  3. Conduct a review phase to identify the most popular solutions
  4. Repeat to incrementally refine unconscious wants and needs

Visual Smartboards

A smartboard is an interactive tool that facilitates group discussions around an image or set of images. In the search for latent needs, this can be used in a number of creative and unique ways. For example, in the initial problem identification stage it can be used to invite discussion on different scenarios the customer may find themselves in. The comment tagging system, combined with an easy to use sentiment tagging ensures quick identification of customer opinion.

In the latter stages of innovation and new product development, online smartboards can be used to test initial reactions to products and services. When developing a radically new idea, customers can often be unsure of its purpose, values and social signals. By testing a range of designs and concepts simultaneously in a smartboard, it is easy to quickly identify the solutions that are received most positively.

Innovation, particularly in addressing latent needs, is a risk. But through careful planning and creative use of existing tools, businesses can gain an in-depth understand of customers’ daily lives. From this, key stakeholders can make decisions about which aspects to target, and which could become a commercial success.

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