I've read somewhere (I forget the source, sorry - I think the MS Office developer's blog?), that when you do a survey of users asking them about what features they would like to see in your software/website, they will more often than not say that they want every little thing, whereas collected metrics show that in the end, most people don't use 99% of these features. The general message from the blog post was that you shouldn't ask people what they use, you should track it for yourself.

This leads to an unfortunate chicken-and-egg situation when trying to figure out what new feature to add next. Without the feature already in place, I can't measure how much it's actually being used. With finite (and severely stretched) resources, I also can't afford to add all the features and then remove the unused ones.

How do you find out what will be useful to your users? If a survey is the only option, do you have to structure your questions in certain ways (eg: don't show a list of possible features, since that would be leading them on)?

+3  A: 
+4  A: 

You tell them. Then both of you know.

(No, your users won't tell you what they want. That's work. If users wanted more work to do, they wouldn't be looking for software to do their work for them.)

well it wouldn't be a *compulsory* survey...
Heh... I'm being somewhat tongue-in-cheek here, but... Google "The Poster Test" - sometimes, asking people what they want can actually harm their ability to recognize it.
@Shog9! I'm Shocked! Shocked! You're doing what you doing what you nail all those other fools for doing - offering a non-helpful anti-answer!
le dorfier
@Shog9- I wish I could upvote your comment. "The Poster Test" was very illuminating.
@Jere Jones: glad you liked it! @le dorfier: *snicker*...
+2  A: 

I would recommend against showing them options; as you point out, if it's available, then people will want it just for the sake of having it. Often the users are not aware of the extra costs of developing a particular feature, and just want it because you mentioned the possibility of having it.

The other option is to show a list of all the features you could possibly add, and then attach a price to each one, and then ask users, would it be worth $X to have feature Y, or, how much extra would you be willing to pay for feature Y?

this is more aimed toward "users" than "clients", so a price tag isn't really appropriate to my specific situation, but that might be a valuable strategy for others!
It is, though, because your users likely have to find room in their budgets to pay your salary to develop the solution, so the price tag might be in time instead of dollars, but the concept is the same.
+1  A: 

You need to tie features to cost. Everyone wants features, but not every feature is worth paying for. Ask which features are most important, which would your users be willing to pay for? Develop features based on the priorities supplied by users and stop when they aren't willing to pay for any more. Get the product into their hands as quickly as possible so that you can get real feedback on what doesn't work and what needs to be added. When the users have access to real software, you get much better information. This works best when you are developing specifically for a particular customer. If you don't have access to real customers, consider seeding your product with people (can you say, public beta?) free in order to get better feedback.

+7  A: 

Give them options and the have them arrange them in order of importance. As you said, the users are going to want everything, but this will allow you to tell what they want the most.

Usually counterproductive. We used to sell a warehouse management system. We knew we were in deep trouble when management came to us halfway through the project and said they we counting on us, because we obviously knew how to run a warehouse better than they did.
le dorfier
A valid point, but as a developer you must prompt for input differently with clients than you would a broad user base

It's a proven fact users don't know what they want. What you need to ask them is what is wrong with what there is now - what problems are they having with your software? why aren't they using x feature and y control? why interaction x worked for them while interaction y made them try to gauge their eyes out?

Of course to be able to ask those questions, you need to do some field study and see what features are used, what patterns your users exhibit and analyze that data. That analysis will give you the base for much more specific questions which users are able to answer decisively and accurately.

Eran Galperin

Use Cases.

What will they do with that feature?

It works like this.

  • People take actions. We build software to help them take actions

  • In order to take an action a person must make a decision. We build software to help them make decisions.

  • In order to make a decision to take an action, a person needs information. We build software to collect and present information.

Every feature must be an Action, a Decision or Information. And the connection had better be direct. Information that does not lead to a decision or an action isn't even "nice to have" -- it's junk.

Users say a lot of things. What do they do? What decisions do they make? What information do they need?


Note that not everyone is good at describing use cases. Some people have no vision and will simply tell you what they do today without understanding how they are creating business (or personal) value. They may not really know what decisions they're supposed to be making, and are vague on the information they need.

Other users know what value they create, and why, and can discuss use cases well. They can envision alternative ways to create value; they can articulate options for their actions. Decisions don't have a lot of alternative implementations (people make decisions, not software) and the information required doesn't change much, either.

Then they will just describe the workflow for their current software.
le dorfier
Agreed with le dorfier. It's the software's job to bring the user to their goal. The user only cares about the goal and concequently how to get there. Goal takes priority, not process.
@le dorfier: some do, some don't. You have to get them out of what they do *now* and into what they do *to create value*.
+4  A: 

An anecdote from a previous life:

We were planning for a new release and wanted to add some new features to the application. We got the users together and brainstormed what things they wanted to see in the system, placing each "feature" on a yellow sticky on a white board. We then grouped similar requests together and eliminated duplicates or near dups.

We then laid each sticky on a table with a cup in front of it. Each user got 10 pennies to "vote" on the features they wanted. They could put as many pennies in each cup as they wanted, up to all their pennies in one cup if they so desired. We then counted the number of pennies in each cup and chose to implement the top 5 vote getters, in order of votes.

It was surprising to see people that were passionate about a feature while brainstorming and categorizing turn around and not vote for that feature (or vote lightly for it).

Of course, a technique like this will only work if you have ready access to your user base (this was for an enterprise system we developed internally).

Patrick Cuff
somewhat similar to the uservoice system
Eran Galperin
+22  A: 

Contrary to popular belief, you don't ask them. Well, you don't listen to them when they tell you what they want. You watch them while they use what they have right now. If they don't have anything, you listen to them enough to give them a prototype, then you watch them use that. How a person actually uses software tells you a lot more than what they actually say they want. Watch what they do to find out what they really need.

Bill the Lizard
Right. You can get a lot of useful information out of what they do to circumvent the system they have. One thing they figure out pretty quickly is how to get enough work done to go home at quitting time.
le dorfier
Even watching how they manually complete a process in order to come up with a prototype program to do the same job is better than asking. :)
Bill the Lizard
For more on this concept look out "Don't Make Me Think" by Steve Krug. Very good reading.

If you're serious, you videotape them at their work, and then you break down what they are trying to accomplish and how your product can help them. This is part of a whole discipline called usability engineering. A good introduction to technique is Jakob Nielsen's book Usability Engineering. Back before he became a shameless huckster, Jakob was a very good scientist and he learned a lot about cheap ways of figuring out what users need. Especially good if you're on a budget. What impressed me most was using paper prototypes; this is a great way to mock up software you haven't built yet and helps answer your question about what to build next. Until I saw this technique in action I couldn't believe how effective it could be.

P.S. One example of what happens if you just ask people: 90% of the feature requests for Microsoft Office 2007 were for features that were already in Microsoft Office 2003. In that case what users needed were better ways of finding what was already there. I wish I could find where I read about this... sorry not to have a reference.

Norman Ramsey
The biggest problem with this approach is that, more often than not, you get a videotape of the users operating the current version of the software they have been given. The degree of agreement between this software and their actual job content is problematic most of the time.
le dorfier
@le dorfier: Agreed this is easy to do badly. The key is to observe users *doing* *their* *jobs*, not necessarily *using* *software*. When using bad conference software I have asked a hundred times: have these people never *seen* a reviewer at work?
Norman Ramsey
+1  A: 

The only way to know what the users "really" need is to "be" the user. Its programming kung fu black belt level.

"Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend."

When you be the water/customer, you'll now.

I think Bruce Lee would be a good programmer.

Im very serious. This is the way I work. I cant do things I dont understand, so I have to understand before I do things. When I understand, and my costomers know I understand then I can do a good job. Without understanding there will be missunderstandings. You are the only person who know when you have the correct level of understanding, you are also the person who is responsible to get that knowledge.

+1  A: 

Users don't know what features they want. You don't know what features they might be offered. "Features" don't mean anything except as they help them accomplish tasks and achieve goals. And that's where you should start, because they will have a very imperfect understanding how they relate.

There is one thing they know, maybe, much better than you do. And that's how to get their jobs done.

As soon as computer/software concepts and terminology start to leak into the discussion between users and designers, you're off the rails.

So many times users will focus their requirements in terms of what's wrong with, or could be improved about, the software they currently use. Over time, even they lose the distinction between their jobs, and the software they use to do their jobs.

It's a very hard, critically important problem for you to solve this.

le dorfier

I'm assuming based on your wording that you are building a product to sell, and not building something to order for a specific client.

In that context, I'd say that you should start by becoming a user yourself and building the features you need in the way that you want it. As you evolve the product, you'll need feedback from other users, but this at least this gets you started and breaks the chicken-egg cycle.

As for measuring actual usage of features, you can set up a discussion forum to get feedback on the features you added... you don't need anything too complicated if you are time-strapped.


I personally like the hands off approach from customers. They give you high level requirements and you provide the implementation. Your software team/company/division are supposed to be the experts. Sure you will make some mistakes, if its horrible the customer will pipe up and you will fix it, but generally having the implementation up to you and your developers is a fun dilemma to solve.

Research, research, research. Learn from others designs, then make your own kickass design. Not easy but then again they don't pay developers the big bucks for nothing.

Then what you'll end up giving them is data entry screens for maintaining your database tables. i.e. the most common pattern in our industry.
le dorfier

That's a good question.

If you're building an FPS game, you really need to know for yourself what should be included, because 99% of your users will never contact you to say "I wish your game just had X". An experienced beta-testing team can help here.

If you're writing an accounting application, you need to understand the industry and what users are trying to accomplish when they use your product, and try and focus your feature set around those goals.

If you're writing a custom app for 100 users in one business, you could have a chat to the dozen or so most avid users of the software. They're the ones who know all the forms back-to-front, have discovered all the undocumented shortcut keys, and have also figured out how to circumvent many of your data validation rules.

too much php

It's called Market Research.

No, this wasn't a dig at the guy, that's really what it is about. Sure, there's a bunch of techniques that UCD people use in the field to get user requirements, but they are exactly the same tools used by market researchers. Card Sorting, Priority lists and so on are all market research terms.

No, this wasn't a dig at the guy, that's really what it is about. Sure, there's a bunch of techniques that UCD people use in the field to get user requirements, but they are exactly the same tools used by market researchers. Card Sorting, Priority lists and so on are all market research terms.
+3  A: 

Users know what they don't want better than they know what they want.

We had brought in a team do do an Oracle eBusiness Suite implementation. They took an interesting approach that had worked very well for them in the past. But it was phenomenal in our environment.

We had cultural issues which meant none of the users were going to stick the necks out to say what they wanted. I had history with the users from the past. Trying to get get requirements out of them was like trying to get blood from a stone. But once you went live the bitching would start.

Anyway the implementation team installed Oracle eBusiness Suite straight out of the box. Give the users the basic training. Then about every 4 weeks for the next 6 months they customized the base installation to accommodate the complaints.


Imagine you are them

Kevin Davis
+2  A: 

Eat your own dog food

Try to use the application that you write yourself as much as possible. Then you will know how you can improve your application.

Although important, The problem with eating your own dog food is when you're not developing something you would use (e.g. SO or some toolkit etc) but somrthing niche. in that case you have to know your market already or learn what they do
  1. Watch them.
  2. Identify bottlenecks in their work
  3. Create something that solves that bottleneck in an elegant way
  4. Let them use it
  5. Repeat until everyone is happy

Based on the principles:

  1. Users know what they want, but they don't know what they really need.
  2. You ARE NEVER going to get it right the first time.

It seems like a chicken-and-egg problem. Much like computing PageRank. A page's page rank is dependent on the PageRank of other pages linking to that page. One way of computing PageRank is by iteration.

Iteration is the key!

A. Voting

  1. Gather a biiiig list of features all users want (make them enumerate each feature they want).

  2. Then have them review the list and allow them to vote on features. Say, give em 100 points to distribute on features. They can give more than 1 point to a feature.

B. Analysis

Analyze the business model, List the features that you think is needed. This is needed because:

  • users sometimes don't get the big picture
  • you have this REALLY great idea that users won't think of in a bajillion years.

C. Implement

Analyze list from A and B, merge, remove a few, improve some. Implement.

D. Test

Test it on users. Hear their complaints. Look at - features they use often - stuff they get stuck on - etc etc etc

E. Iterate

+1  A: 
  1. The Oracle at Delphi

    Pros: accuracy is superb Cons: if you can interpret the messages, which many people fail to do (often seeing what they want to see). Also requires supplication, which can get messy (contrary to popular opinion, your hecatomb need not be 100 of the same type of livestock).

  2. Psychics

    Pros: accurate to a point.

    Cons: rare. Prone to mental instability, highly vulnerable to eldritch beings, and might attract unwanted attention from them. Also, it takes experience to sort through the mystery that is the human mind to get to desired information. And sometimes you still need to probe subjects while they're actually doing the thing they need help with, since users lie.

  3. Plant a mole

    Pros: New gadgets. New Poisons! Plans within plans within plans. Baby's a freak show. You might learn all sorts of fascinating things in addition to the information you need to help the user.

    Cons: Expensive. Chances remain that the agent will turn on you, or fail to learn anything you couldn't learn more simply. If discovered, organization will likely turn or liquidate the asset, which represents a huge investment of resources. Organization might reciprocate.

  4. Guess

    Pros: Take a group of people with average to great imaginations and problem solving skills, give them some booze and inspire them with some quotes from Ghostbusters, Big Trouble in Little China, or The Big Lewbowski. Who knows where it will go, but it'll be fun and they might produce something interesting/useful.

    Cons: Chances of meeting user's needs are higher than you think, but not that good.

  5. Ask the user

    Pros: users feel empowered as part of the process.

    cons: until they have to decide on anything, at which point you are on your own. Unless the user is a very experienced user, in which case they probably have a good idea of what the want. There's only like 4 experienced users on the planet though, and nobody ever knows anyone who gets to do a job for them. They may be mythical beasts.

  6. Pretend you care and ask the user (even though you don't really), and then observe them doing whatever key workflow/process/etc is involved and pay attention to what they do.

    Pros: you trick the users into thinking their opinion matters, which empowers them but doesn't deliver any other baggage. Since users lie - no purposefully or maliciously mind - you actually get to see them in action and get a better grasp of what the problem is, thus giving you a better foundation for building a solution. Also, you avoid the psychic route, and thus avoid a long and winding road that begins with promise but ends with you and the psychic being eaten by some monstrous, unspeakable thing that is not of this world. Observing the process is like totally Zen, which is good for your Developer Mystique.

    Cons: No road trip to the Oracle (which would be EPIC). Spies are much sexier; chicks dig spies. Ghostbusters|Big Trouble in Little China|The Big Lewboski probably aren't involved. Feels more like work than the rest of the options.


Asking users about features will prompt them to talk to you about features.

If you want to find out what users really want then you are talking about understanding their goals and motivations. I've found the easiest way to start doing this is user interviews, not about features but about how users use your product and products like it, why they are using it and how it fits in with their life.

Once you build an understanding of what your users are trying to do with your product and why they want to do it you are in a position to make an informed judgment as to whether the features people requested are what they really need.

Ideally I think your problem is about understanding users rather then just listening to their requests.

+1  A: 

According to 37 Signals - Getting Real book, you don't do anything, you don't even record what they want, you just delete mails after one read without any action.

When it comes to implement / fix stuff you'll remember the most important things that your users want from top of your head. Obviously this requires a bit user base.

dr. evil

Usually, users do not always know what they want and whether they want anything. In our company sales people go to existing and potential customers, show them our product and explain them why they desperately want that.

In my time in university we were taught something called "userp-driven development". Here you really have to go to the customer, observer how people there work, what tools do they use, and try to find out what could facilitate their life. You then create a mock-up, go to the customer again, present it to the users, get their feedback and then proceed to improve your mock-up. When everyone more or less agrees to the course of action, you do implementation, regularly showing the customer what you have trying to get correction feedback as early as possible.

Important is not to talk to the managers who want the product, but to the users who will use the product. Otherwise the whole play will bring you nothing.

P.S. Asking them directly "What do you want?" could be a dangerous question... Babylon 5 - What do you want?

+1  A: 

This is an old question with a lot of good answers already, but I thought I'd just add a little bit of personal experience for the sake of people who end up here in the future through a search like I did.

If your project does not need to gain an audience as quickly as possible in order to succeed (like a webapp) if it's more of an internal project or product to be sold for a fixed client, or type of client, then I believe your best bet is to go the 37signals way: give your users the absolute minimum they need in order to accomplish the most basic tasks of the most basic cycle of work at first, then listen to what they say it's objectively missing in order for them to do their work properly. Not what they want or would like it to have, but what they really need. And the only way you know for sure what you really need is when you don't have it.

I worked as the designer in the development team of an intranet-based "heart-of-the-company" app that followed that strategy, and the results were wonderful. First week: everyone was pissed. When it was over, 90%+ of approval, and the app was still simple and beautiful. And most of the people who were not entirely satisfied seemed to understand why it couldn't be like they wanted, and the main request of nearly everyone was to, whatever we did, keep the app simple.

Again, if you're working on a product or website that needs to attract people first, that might not be feasible or delay things a lot. But if you have some control or leeway over the userbase, I'd definitely recommend this approach.

Baby Diego

Buy a tomato, get some dough, roll it, sprinkle some salt, let it set for 15 mins, roll it round so the bottom becomes the top side. Go outside and find a tree thats pointing north or if your in the eastern hemispehere it should point south. Climb the tree and get the smallest greenest newest leaf. Bring it home and mash it up into a fine powder. Add some water and honey to a cup and bring it to boil. The honey should have disolved into the water awhich should be look like urine, yellow but warm.