Identifying and Defining Consumer Needs Using Human Factors and Market Research Techniques

Thomas Cannon, Design Factors
Dr. Ronald W. Hasty, Colorado State University
ABSTRACT - Consumer need identification and definition are areas whose importance in successfully defining new product concepts, evaluating existing products, and evaluating promotional materials effectiveness has not been fully appreciated by many in consumer research, This paper discusses the significance of these areas in reducing risk and uncertainty in new product development. The application of specific human factors and market research techniques to need identification and definition and the development of specific products using such techniques is discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Thomas Cannon and Dr. Ronald W. Hasty (1978) ,"Identifying and Defining Consumer Needs Using Human Factors and Market Research Techniques", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 494-498.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 494-498


Thomas Cannon, Design Factors

Dr. Ronald W. Hasty, Colorado State University


Consumer need identification and definition are areas whose importance in successfully defining new product concepts, evaluating existing products, and evaluating promotional materials effectiveness has not been fully appreciated by many in consumer research, This paper discusses the significance of these areas in reducing risk and uncertainty in new product development. The application of specific human factors and market research techniques to need identification and definition and the development of specific products using such techniques is discussed.


A recent paper (Crawford, 1977) raised the question "Why has the rate of new product success not climbed as a result of the many advances in marketing research technology over the past 25 years?" Crawford cites numerous studies which report failure rates up to 90%. The reasons for such failures range from poor timing, as in the case of the Edsel, to poor planning. However, the most predominant reason for failure, cited by all the studies examined, was "the lack of meaningful superior product uniqueness."

Crawford concludes that while market research techniques may be able to determine what consumers think of products once they are in the market, they are not particularly valuable in the development of truly new products or determining if people will buy the new products before they are introduced in the market.

The authors of this paper take the position that much of the failure to improve the success ratio of new products is traceable to gaps in the conventional product planning process. The major gap results from a lack of techniques suited to systematically identify and define consumer needs. The techniques necessary for these tasks must come from two sources. Those which are useful in consumer need identification come primarily from the field of market research and those suitable for consumer need definition come from the field of human factors research.

Figure 1 shows a typical new product planning process. Stage one is the development of objectives. Stage two is new product idea generation. Stage three screens the ideas for acceptability measured by the objectives set in stage one. Acceptable ideas undergo engineering development in stage four followed by market testing in stage five and commercialization in stage six.

In the process outlined, new product planning is basically a marketing activity. However, engineering and other non-marketing sources normally have responsibility for the generation and development of new product ideas. It is generally accepted in the marketing literature that marketing is responsible for developing idea sources, not ideas, and then coordinating the process required for screening them. (Shocker, 1969 & Larson, 1963)


The generation of new product ideas is an activity which suffers from a belief that all really successful new products originate in a flash of creative insight. While such instances are not unknown it is evident that dependence on individual strokes of genius is not an adequate method of meeting the continuing corporate demand for new products. Most knowledgeable individuals would agree with this, yet brainstorming and other methods which attempt to increase the number of such creative flashes, are widely used. Such techniques continue to promote the myth that locked inside every individual is a "bright idea" for a product which would have wide appeal.

What is missing in such approaches is the recognition that any successful new product must be a solution to a consumer need. Once this is understood, it is apparent that the generation of new product ideas should be preceded by (1) the identification and (2) the definition of a need. Logically, only after this is accomplished can solutions to the need be developed through the exercise of creative abilities.

To solve the problem of filling this gap between stages one and two, techniques are needed for developing a specification of those characteristics required to provide consumer satisfaction in accomplishing a given end or task within a specific environment. Four factors must be addressed: (1) the degree of need, (2) characteristics of the consumer, (3) characteristics of the task, and (4) characteristics of the environment.

The degree of need can be defined as the consumers' perception that a discrepancy exists between a condition as it is and as it might be (Smith, 1973). The baseline for determining the degree of such discrepancy is the consumer's present condition. While attempts have been undertaken to make such measurements through the use of motivational research, this type of basic research has been generally neglected by market researchers. This is so, in part, because such measurements are difficult to make without specific analytical tools typically unused by the market researcher.

Utilizing a need characterization methodology to guide the generation of new product ideas can reduce the number of ideas to be screened in stage three to those which offer the greatest potential for satisfying Crawford's requirement of meaningful superior product uniqueness with particular emphasis on "meaningful." The purpose of stage three might be better understood if it were referred to as the screening of need solution concepts. This would keep the focus on an idea's usefulness to consumers and prevent the common mistake of concentrating upon the uniqueness aspect. Most product planning processes use stage three to evaluate concepts to determine if they have the potential to achieve profitability objectives, will result in greater market penetration, and achieve other business management goals. Emphasis on such measures can create an atmosphere in which evaluation of a concepts ability to truly meet the consumers defined needs is neglected.

Market researchers have frequently attempted to attack this problem by using concept testing. This technique attempts to determine if the potential user understands the idea of the proposed product, reacts favorably to it and feels it answers their need (Luck, 1970). Concept testing, as presently practiced, has not proven to be very reliable in predicting the ultimate success of products (Tauber, 1975). One difficulty with most concept testing is that the consumer is not in a position where evaluations can be made in an educated manner. The consumer has no opportunity to experience the product in the actual use environment, but must make a subjective evaluation based on a verbal or visual representation of the concept. A second serious problem is that all product attributes which are important to the consumer may not be revealed during the concept test because the consumer is not able to predict his or her own behavior in relation to the product over time.

At present, decisions made in stage three are critical because they commit the firm to development in a particular direction thereby excluding alternative courses of action. And this is usually done on the basis of intuition, consensus, and judgment influenced by past experience.

What is missing is a method of allowing potential consumers to evaluate solution concepts and their characteristics in a realistic use environment before the decision to start product development activities is made. Only if this is done can the time consuming and expensive practice of developing products which are not marketable be eliminated. It is a fact that engineering departments are prone to expending resources on concepts which address problems which are not primary to users or in configurations which are not acceptable to users. In addition, the desire to demonstrate technological feasibility often results in solutions which fatally compromise consumer requirements.


Many existing market research techniques can be readily adapted to identifying various market segments and ranking the segments in terms of profit potential, suitability for existing distribution channels, etc. Identifying specific needs of these market segments can also be accomplished using existing techniques. However, because in the past these techniques have been used almost exclusively for evaluating existing or proposed product attributes, market researchers must reorient their perspective to one which does not focus on the product and its attributes but rather on basic consumer need structures. Research techniques such as depth interviewing, projective methods of word association, thematic application tests, sentence completion, and so forth have provided ways in which information can be obtained from consumers concerning their thoughts and feelings about product characteristics. The task now facing market research is to adapt these proven techniques to provide specific information concerning problems perceived by consumers in their present methods of achieving goals. The authors have utilized such tried and true techniques as in-depth interviews, questionnaires, and focus groups to identify specific areas of need. These and other techniques are also useful in defining with precision the psychological or "felt" needs of consumers.


Techniques from the field of human factors research provide a complementary capability which allows researchers to answer questions about physical characteristics which are critical to consumer satisfaction. These questions have to do with the range of physical capabilities exhibited by the market segment under consideration, the ways in which consumers presently perform various tasks and the role which environmental factors play in the accomplishment of tasks. While there are a number of tested human factors techniques which can be utilized to define consumer need, those which are most useful come under the general category of observational methods. In addition to personal observation of consumers the human factors specialist utilizes slow motion and time lapse photography, video recording, and a variety of non-visual recording methods. An example of the latter would be the use of an event recorder to create a record of the sequence, duration, and frequency of a consumer's activities. An extensive amount of human factors research has been done on human capabilities in the areas of vision, strength, hearing, response time, memory, fatigue, and the effects of environmental factors, such as lighting, temperature, sound, etc. These and other factors are directly related to the consumer's overall ability to accomplish goals without encountering problems.

The evaluation of need solution concepts can be accomplished through the use of the human factors technique of physical simulation. Such a simulation is distinct from engineering test models and product prototypes. A physical simulation may employ none of the technology which will be used in the production product. Instead, it utilizes whatever methods allow the product user to be presented with a realistic approximation of the functional characteristics which the product may exhibit in production form. Ideally, a simulation allows modification of the product characteristics to test a variety of configurations. Simulation provides information on the effects of a product's physical characteristics which are most critical to satisfaction. In addition, the probability of error in the accomplishment of tasks while using the product can be examined. This information can be used both to provide for maximum product safety and provide a basis for defense against liability claims.

Introducing human factors and market research techniques into the new product planning process as discussed, is illustrated in figure 2.

The inevitable question is: How does the new method work in practice?" In an attempt to provide at least a partial answer, the development of an actual product is outlined below.


The Nurtury is an infant feeding system which was developed utilizing the process proposed. As a system of products it represents an excellent example of (1) the development of several unique new products, and (2) the development of superior products of a type already on the market. The Nurtury is described in the Appendix.

As discussed earlier in this paper, the first step in the product development process is the identification of consumer need. In the present case, this was accomplished in several ways. First, was the identification of the general area of infant care as a market segment which offered profit potential. An ongoing analysis of basic demographic and social trends in the United States indicated a number of facts which pointed to a potential in this area.

1. A trend to smaller family units which frees disposable income for child care products.

2. Growth of population in the 20 to 39 year age group with an accompanying growth in household formations.

3. An increasing number of first born children in spite of an overall decline in the birth rate.

4. An increase in the average mother's age accompanied by higher educational levels and greater involvement in all facets of child care.

5. The success of firms producing hard goods of the type purchased for first born children in contrast



The first step in identifying which of many possible areas within the field of infant care had the greatest development potential was to conduct a series of group discussions with new mothers. Discussions were guided by a moderator from the general topic of infant care problems to specific areas such as feeding, bathing, sleep, mobility, etc. In addition to participating in the discussions, subjects were asked to complete a questionnaire which included listing all infant care products owned and the degree of satisfaction with the products.

The result of these discussions was the identification of home baby food preparation as an area of intense interest for the mothers. The identification of this interest was supported by the finding that 59% of the subjects owned a hand operated baby food grinder which was universally considered an excellent product even though numerous specific problems with its use were cited.

The second step in identifying areas of need in relation to infant feeding was a telephone survey of new mothers to (1) obtain ownership and use information on feeding equipment, (2) determine perceived problem areas, (3) identify preferred characteristics of existing products, and (4) obtain suggestions for improvements in existing products. Each subject was asked specific questions concerning their experiences with the products they owned. This survey confirmed the need for improved methods of grinding, storing, warming, and serving baby foods. In addition, new areas, such as training aids for drinking and eating were identified.

The final step in the identification of need and the first step in need definition was a literature search. The search served to define existing knowledge concerning the nutritional and safety aspects of home preparation of baby food and provided data on the physical capabilities of infants at various stages of development. The search was supplemented by interviews with pediatricians and pediatric nurses to determine their level of awareness and attitudes toward home preparation. The results of the literature search indicated that underlying the popular interest in home prepared baby food, as revealed by an increasing frequency of publications related to the topic, was a growing body of research which questioned the desirability of feeding commercially prepared foods both from a nutritional and cost standpoint. The chief drawback to home preparation was seen by most professionals as the possibility of contamination during the processing and storage of the food, however, this was not considered an insurmountable problem.

An example of the type of human factors information located concerning physical capabilities of infants was the fact that initial efforts of infants to feed themselves with a spoon are hampered by an inability to perform the combined task of lifting their elbow and rotating their wrist to insert a conventional spoon in their mouth. As a result infants typically invert the spoon while raising it and insert the side of the spoon in their mouth.

Each of the identified areas of need required the application of specific human factors techniques to adequately define exact need characteristics. One of the techniques used to define dimensional requirements for drinking from a training tumbler was an anthropometric survey conducted on a sample population of infants in the defined age group. The survey established the maximum container diameter which could be easily grasped and the most desirable lip design for the tumbler.

To confirm the information obtained through the literature search and further investigate the existing process of infant feeding a series of observations using slow motion photography were made of mothers preparing and serving baby food in their homes. These films were carefully analyzed to reach an exact definition of problems encountered by individuals using current techniques and equipment.

The problems defined by these studies provided the basis for development of test models or simulations which would allow alternative solution concepts to be realistically evaluated. Each test model was evaluated by fifteen or more mothers and infants for periods of up to two weeks. Subjects were interviewed both before and after the evaluations using detailed questionnaires to define initial perceptions of product characteristics and subsequent changes in perception based on experience with the products. In addition, users were observed and filmed using the test models to aid researchers in the identification of potential problem areas. Depending on the results of the initial evaluations, additional concepts were developed or refinements were made in existing test models. Such modifications were followed by additional user evaluations.

An example of the type of information obtained from observation of the test models in use was the fact that female users of the food grinder invariably applied much greater pressure on the food plunger than was required and as a result often stalled or overloaded the drive motor. This finding indicated that particular attention should be paid to educating the potential user about the proper operation of the product and in addition the grinder should be engineered to meet the actual forces imposed by the user as contrasted with the optimum forces calculated for efficient use.




There are two keys to improving the success ratio of new products. First is utilization of a combination of human factors and market research techniques early in the new product development process to identify and define consumer needs. Second is using these same techniques combined with product simulations to provide consumer input to the screening of solution concepts.

Use of the market research and human factors combine has not been widely exploited and a great deal of refinement and innovation in techniques can be expected. The usefulness of this approach has been demonstrated, however, in the development of a number of products, including those discussed in this paper.


The NurturyJ Infant Feeding System by Teledyne Water Pik is presently being introduced into retail outlets on a national basis. The product consists of three packages containing an electric baby food grinder with accessory items, a baby food warmer and serving tray unit with accessories, and baby feeding helpers including two spoons, a training tumbler, and a bib. Each of the products has characteristics which provide unique competitive advantages and all of these characteristics were developed to solve problems encountered by mothers and infants in the tasks associated with infant feeding. The primary promotional appeals of the Nurtury are:

1. Mothers can feed their babies the freshest, most natural foods in the world.

2. Babies get the full nutritional value from fresh foods.

3. Mothers save money by turning family food into baby food so there's no waste.

4. Mothers know exactly what's going into their babies.

5. Mothers can easily control the portion size because the Nurtury is specially designed to prepare small quantities of food.

6. Baby food tastes better because it's fresher.

Following are illustrations of each of the products accompanied by promotional copy describing the primary characteristics which make the products unique.

The Nurtury Serving Tray

1. Holds three Storable Servers snugly in place.

2. Has a strong suction cup to firmly grip baby's tray so there's no worry of upsetting.


The Nurtury Baby Food Warmer

1. Evenly warms food to the proper temperature in 10-15 minutes.

2. Automatically maintains temperature so food won't overheat or dry out.

3. Used with the same Storable Servers used for per-paring food.


The Nurtury Baby Food Grinder

1. Grinds freshly cooked meats, fruits and vegetables into nutritious baby food.

2. Specially designed to prepare meal-size portions so there's no waste.

3. Comes with three texturizing discs for puree, junior, or toddler.


Storable Servers

1. 4-oz., meal-size, resealable containers for preparing, serving, refrigerating and freezing food.

2. Color-coded for easy identification.

3. Transparent, tight sealing lids.

4. Ounce markings on the side to measure meal-size portions directly into Servers.

5. Stackable, easily portable.

6. Made of durable plastic.

7. Freezer-proof to allow preparation and storage of extra food.


The Overall Bib

1. Covers shoulders, chest, sides, and lap.

2. Pocket catches spills, and pulls open for easy cleaning.

3. Made of durable plastic coated nylon.

4. Drawstring neck opens wide to fit over head. Can be adjusted to fit closely and comfortably around neck.

5. Stain-resistant and easy to clean.

6. May be laundered in automatic washer and dryer.


The Nurtury Nutrition Guidebook

A complete guide to infant nutrition including all aspects of introducing solid foods and solving problems encountered.

Mother's Feeding Spoon

1. Bowl has wide, deep portion in front so mother can feed baby without placing entire bowl in baby's mouth.

2. Food stays on tip of spoon for easy feeding. Allows baby to get more food.

3. Bowl is sized for baby's mouth. No sharp or rough edges.


Baby's Self-Feeding Spoon

1. Holes in the bowl help hold the food on the spoon.

2. Holes help to fill the spoon as baby plays in food.

3. Rectangular shaped bowl and special baby-grip handle let baby eat from the sides of the spoon when held in either hand.


Adjusta-Flo Training Tumbler

1. Locking cap won't come off when dropped.

2. Prevents spills because the Tumbler is designed to roll when dropped so holes are at the top when it stops.

3. Metered flow control adjusts to baby's drinking capabilities.

4. Specially designed lip aids baby's natural transition from sucking to drinking, and allows baby to drink without tilting head back.



C. Merle Crawford, "Marketing Research and the New Product Failure Rate," Journal of Marketing, 4 (March, 1977), 51-61.

David J. Luck, Hugh G. Wales, and Donald A. Taylor, Marketing Research, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1970), 447-450.

A. D. Shocker, et. al. Marketing Involvement in Society and the Economy, (Chicago: American Marketing Association, 1969), 167-175.

G. L. Smith and L. B. Archer, "A Methodology for Consumer Design," Proceedings of the Seventeenth Annual Meeting of the Human Factors Society, (Santa Monica, Calif.: Human Factors Society, 1973), 105-110.

Edward M. Tauber, "Why Concept and Product Tests Fail to Predict New Product Results," Journal of Marketing, 39 (October, 1975), 69-71.