“The last time I took a bath? Like in a tub?” If you are like most people we know you don’t do it very often.

And this makes it the perfect thing to talk about to explain the difference between a NEED and a WANT when it comes to innovation and early stage product development (and probably any romantic relationship) because you probably never think about what you want in your next tub.

This distinction between need and want is important because a lot of people that make products will tell you that customers don’t know what they want. Then they will use this Henry Ford quote related to the invention of cars –  “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” – to rebuff any suggesting that getting to know customers better will help in their innovation efforts.

 And they are right: Customers do not know what they want.

When you ask customers what they want, they feel put on the spot and so they give you a list of things they think they want. Unfortunately, it will rarely* be reliable or include any innovations (*there are, of course, exceptions). It isn’t generally reliable because a want is a combination of what the person knows they need and what they think is possible to make.

Remember, we aren’t talking about telling a company how to improve the zipper on a jacket or fix some way that they wronged you. We are talking about telling a company what you want the next generation of your stove, your car, your server, or your ability to process big data analytics to be. For both of those components (knowing what they need and knowing what is possible) to be accurate the person has to be hyperaware of their emotions, behaviors, context, and decisions on this topic and have a full understanding of the technology available to make the product. I can’t name one product area – or even any area – in my life where this is true for me, what about for you?

But customers can express what they need  just don’t ask them to turn that into a product or a product feature.  That last part is the job of the smart product makers (business + engineers) who get to listen to customers express their needs. When you drop a set of wants on these innovation teams – essentially telling them exactly what to make – you tie their hands and smother the innovation you asked them to achieve. But once empower them with needs, these innovation teams can unharness their brilliance.

So, back to the last time you took a bath . . .

Imagine that we are working for a company that makes bath tubs and they are hoping to make the next best bath tub for the average American home. They have asked us to help them gather insights to develop this ground breaking tub.

Envision this research interview:

 Me: “Imagine you are building a new house, tell me what you want your next bath tub to be like. ”

Interviewee 1: “Bath tub? Ok … hmm, well, I’d like it have jets, maybe have claw feet or be more square . . . a glass door, I’d like a glass door.”

Me: “So if I presented you with a bath tub that had jets, was “claw footed”, was more square than round, and had a glass door, you’d buy it?”

Interviewee 1: “Yes. Probably.”

Compare it to this one:

Me: “I want to talk to you about the last time you took a bath. Since I can’t be there to watch you do it, walk me through everything that happened. Don’t leave out any details.”

Interviewee 2: “Really? Ok … I mean, this was probably 6 months ago. I really only take baths when I’m injured. Ok, so, I got home from the gym and realized my hamstring was really hurting. I decided that I should take a bath to make it feel better. The bath tub takes a long time to fill up so I decided to start running the water and then cook dinner. You know, it gets so hot anyway that I knew I’d have enough time for it to cool down while I was eating dinner.

So, I went into the bathroom, pulled all the sports equipment I store in the tub out of it, kneeled down on the ground to get at the stopper lever that keeps the water in the tub. I turned on the water and tested the temperature to make sure it was ok for me. After fiddling with it for a bit I got the temperature I wanted. I left the door open to the bathroom so I could hear the water running while I cooked and hear when it was close to full.”

—– jump ahead to the actual bath —

Interviewee 2: “I got a towel so that my head could rest on it while I was in the tub and rolled it up and set it on the ground near where my head would be. I undressed, put my gym clothes on the sink, and then put one foot in the tub. It was still really hot so I did that tub dance, you know? The one where you put one foot in, then you pull it out, then you put it in, etc. (Me: “I think that’s the Chicken Dance …”) Finally after about 5 minutes I got my entire body in. I got the towel in place behind my head and settled in.

You know, from that point on I just soaked in the tub. The water kept draining out and I kept having to lean forward to reach the knobs to add more water. Of course the towel dropped in a bazillion times. Wet-towel-pillow, great. Oh, and you know, inevitably I burned myself on the faucet. I always do. I’m sitting there soaking thinking “do NOT touch the faucet with your toes” but then, I’m bored you know, not like you can read in there with wet hands, and I started to play with the faucet with my toes …”

(Let’s be clear, it takes a bit more questioning and prodding to get an interviewee to open up like that but once they do the stories are fantastic.)


In the first interview, we learned about 4 features that interviewee 1 might want in a tub. Might. And as you could probably tell the 4 features that interviewee 1 listed are the 4 things he knows are available in tubs today.  You may not realize it but there are a lot of tub advertisements on tv and in magazines where interviewee likely saw these cool features. We don’t know if those features are at all relevant to the problems that person faced the last time he took a bath. We don’t know how often he takes a bath. And we don’t know if the features are at all relevant to his life (he could very well not even have a tub right now.) These are wants.

In the second interview, wow! that is an innovation researcher’s dream interview.  By taking us through the pre-bath, bath, and post-bath experience, interviewee 2 exposed all kinds of needs. Most of the needs he expressed would be considered “latent needs” – he doesn’t even know he has them but it is clear from his stories that he faced challenges that if solved for would improve his bath experience. Since he doesn’t take a bath much and isn’t a bath tub design expert, it isn’t surprising that he doesn’t have many non-latent or known needs. If we pressed him we might get him to articulate a few but we don’t need them with all those latent needs. The product team will work through which ones are most pressing.

Let’s look at some of those needs in that interview:

–       A way to reuse the space the bathtub takes up when it isn’t being used as a bathtub

–       An easier way to stop the drain

–       A way to get from ‘decision to take a bath’ to ‘in the bath’ faster

–       A way ensure more acceptable water temperature as soon as the bath is ready

–       A way to know the bath tub is full when not in the bathroom

–       A way to know the water temperature is comfortable enough to get into all at once

–       A more ergonomically correct tub for soaking

–       An easy way to keep the water the level and temperature you want while soaking

–       A way to read in the tub without getting a book wet

–       A way to ensure no matter where your body parts go you won’t get burned by any part of the tub while in the tub


If we take that transcript back to the product team (remember: business + engineers) – the people who do know all the new bath tub technologies – they will pull out even more needs from the interview and come up with about 40 possible features. Many of those needs won’t be important to the larger client base and many of the features won’t be feasible for the company’s strategy or the market right now but some of them will and they might be really innovative.

Understanding the distinction between needs and wants isn’t just for the business world – it is beneficial in your personal life too. In moments of discord people often come up with the most outlandish requirements for their partners or friends because they are pressed to come up with a solution to the argument. You can imagine this conversation, can’t you?

Speaker 1: “Ok. You want us to spend more time together. Got it. But what will make this heavy discussion end?”

Speaker 2: “I don’t know . . . just commit to going running with me every morning at 6 AM.”

Speaker 1: “What? Seriously? … How is that … Ok, sure, 6 AM it is.”

Speaker 2 was likely not arguing with speaker 1 about running times and that probably wasn’t the solution s/he was looking for but, when pressed, that was the solution that came to mind. Speaker 2 probably didn’t know all the possible ways to solve for this s/he just new that more time together was needed.

Identifying needs makes it a lot easier to come up with mutually beneficial solutions for partners, companies, and customers.