The Voice of the Customer Series (3/4): Analyzing Customer Needs

Armed with a comprehensive set of customer need statements, your job is to start to organize and make sense of those. This part details how to organize those customer needs into a usable hierarchy, using the KJ Method.
After you have performed your research to gather a full set of customer needs the job is to organize those into a structure you can address by product development and marketing. To do so consists of the following 3 stages, which we’ll outline in this post:

  1. Develop a full set of customer needs as defined by individual need statements
  2. Organize those into a needs hierarchy using the KJ Analysis technique
  3. Revise and iterate

We’ll go into each of these in detail…

1) Normalize the customer needs into a “database”

From all of the interviews performed in stage 2, you’ll likely be left with a heap of unstructured statements and interview notes. Your first step is to “normalize” those needs to have a better reflection of requirements. This is an exercise to rephrase the needs into a succinct statement. That said, always keep around the original customer statement, where possible. Here are some tips to follow when performing this exercise.

  • Be true: Express the need as specifically as the raw data
  • One standalone idea: Write the ideas in short phrases or sentences so they are understood in a “stand-alone” context
  • Stay positive: Use positive vs. negative phrasing to ensure the requirements are clearly articulated
  • Describe not prescribe: Express need in terms of what product has to do, not in terms of how it might do it — so think “goals” vs. “attributes”
  • Needs not constraints: Avoid the words “must” and “should”, as these words are redundant, and can inadvertently throw the proces off track by focusing on specific constraints vs. desired outcomes

In this process write every individual need statement, including duplicates, onto an index card, post-it note, or some other physical form — this sets us up nicely for the fun part coming up next.

Practical advice: the VOC model does not explicitly say to do this, but I can tell you from performing this exercise for our product “The Barmaid” we broke down over 2 days worth of video into a set of needs. Just copying the statement alone and “worrying about it later” can make things harder down the line.

2) Group the needs using an affinity chart (aka “KJ Analysis”)

Now that you have a good “normalized” set of customer need statements, the job is to cluster those needs into a hierarchy consisting of primary, secondary, and tertiary needs. To recap from our previous post, here’s what each need level represents:

  • Primary needs to help set the strategic direction for marketing
  • Secondary needs that expand upon each primary need, specifying the tactical approach to satisfy the corresponding primary (strategic) need
  • Tertiary needs that provide operational guidance to engineering for what to build, or to marketing on how to message the product (these are your normalized need statements)

We’ll follow a three-stage process, working “bottom-up”, from tertiary to primary needs, to create an Affinity Chart. This technique is also known as the “KJ Method” or “KJ Analysis”, after Kawakita Jiro, its developer who was also a Japanese anthropologist. The goal of this method is to categorize all of those need statements into groups and identify any relationships between them. Here are the steps:

  1. Group the individual need statements: starting with the index cards you created containing the “normalized needs” (tertiary needs), sort the cards into piles, where each pile represents similar needs, yet differs from the other piles in some way — the number of piles, and exact definition of “similarity”, are deliberately left unspecified to let the groupings flow organically
  2. Label the groups: Choose a single need from each pile that best represents the other cards within it. This “exemplar” will ensure that as close a link as possible to the actual customer’s voice is encapsulated in the secondary needs.
  3. Group the groups: Repeating the process of #1 & #2, will yield a three tier hierarchy with these primary needs at the “top”

The following figure visually depicts this process.


Customer vs. team driven process

One issue addressed in the VOC Paper, is who performs the KJ Analysis? The paper compares when the product team performed the exercise vs. real customers (for a food container product), and came up with the following result:


What’s striking here is that the customer sort method was a better reflection of how the product is used vs. the team sort method that aligned more closely to how the product would be built.

Key Learning: Team-sort processes are better for “engineering” problems, while the customer-led processes align more closely to the actual customer’s voice, which may be better for novel & consumer products. 

However, there are real constraints and resources when employing a customer-driven process, so keep that in mind when selecting a method.

3) Iterate

Once you have your hierarchy of primary, secondary, and tertiary needs, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on the results. This leaves room for qualitative, or “aha”, insights, that can help refine the hierarchy. Likewise, the team may see particular themes repeat that could require more focused brainstorming (typically happens at the secondary, or “red”, level).

Looking Ahead

We’ve covered previously: Part I: The Basics of the VOC model and Part II: Gathering Customer Needs. Next up, we’ll look at Part IV: Prioritizing customer needs.


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