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Field note—

Needs are verbs

Emilie Fetscher

16 June 2017

When trying to understand what an audience needs, it pays to dig deeper than the obvious solutions. This means framing and reframing the problem we are trying to solve. One of the easiest and often ignored concepts is that needs are verbs not nouns.

A verb will allow your imagination to fly, but thinking of your users’ need as a noun means you have already defined the solution. Nouns constrain our thinking to variations on a theme. Verbs allow us to stray away from the obvious and come up with blue sky ideas.

Here is a classic example: Why build a bridge? What need are we trying to solve?

If we were to simply say that there was a need for a bridge, then the solution is already predetermined. The next step would be to contract an engineer to draft up a bridge to certain standards. But if we were to say that the need was to transport vehicles across a body of water, we could imagine that other possible solutions may include a ferry or underwater tunnel.

If we were to say the need was to transport people across, we may add in solutions like a train, swimming, a zip-line, or even more wild ideas like a human catapult. Going still broader, if we were to say the need was not to simply transport people or goods but to transmit information from one place to another, we start to think about solutions that include phone lines, radio, or internet cables. And if we push to come up with some wild ideas we may even start to design the future.

Thinking of needs as verbs can be useful in any project. Re-frame:

“Small businesses need an accountant to sort out their finances and comply with government regulations.”


“Small businesses struggling with their finances need effortless access to straightforward advice and solutions relevant to their situation.”

And we start to imagine online tools, services, or even redesigning the government regulations they are struggling with in the first place. What began as a single solution turns into an eco-system of related products, services and experiences that can tackle the problem and not just the symptoms.

If, as designers, we really want to help shape the future we need to be aware of how we frame the problems we tackle. One powerful approach is framing needs as verbs.