Customer Needs Research: 6 Methods to identify Customer Needs

What are the best customer needs research methods

Why is Customer Needs Research important?

For every business, it is crucial to identify and meet customer needs and wants as they are the only reason your customers are paying for your product. Customer needs research enables business leaders to understand their customer's pain points and unmet needs.

A deep understanding and empathy for problems let you keep the balance between business goals and customer needs. A lack thereof on the other hand can lead to purely short-term revenue-driven decisions. This could harm the brand reputation and customer trust which is harder to regain than it is to keep.

There are many resources about market research methods and most of them could be used for this purpose. It can be overwhelming and time-consuming to gain an understanding of each method. I ranked and graded each method along the categories of time, cost, knowledge, and insight potential to give your research efforts the boost you need. Therefore, this guide should save you hours of reading through method descriptions to choose the best methods that suit your unique situation. 

How to Identify Customer Needs?

The success of customer needs identification strongly depends on the research methods that are used to gather the data. If you do not know your target customer group, you should read our guide to customer needs analysis before you decide on the best research methods. 

From the 8 methods described below usually 1 -3 should be sufficient to uncover most unmet customer pain points or wants. Understanding your customers is not a one-time endeavor as their needs might change over time, all methods could be helpful throughout the product life cycle. 

Tip: Usually the research results are used for marketing or product development purposes. If you are not an expert in these methods it may help to focus on emotional/social needs for marketing purposes and functional needs for product development purposes. 

Customer Interviews

Time: 4/5
Cost: 2/5
Knowledge: 4/5 
Insights potential: 5/5

Conducting 1-on-1 interviews is a research method that can be applied in almost all cases. It is great to uncover emotional as well as functional needs and to gain a better understanding of your customer as a whole. In comparison to quantitative methods, customer interviews can be done without any prior knowledge of the problems your customers are facing. 

Interviews are a great start for any user needs analysis. The only downside to this method is the time and knowledge needed to get reliable insights. Interviews can be outsourced but it is harder than with asynchronous research methods. Make sure the interviewer is very knowledgeable about your specific solution and the problem space in general. 

How to prepare and conduct a Customer Interview

Thorough Interview preparation will make the difference in the amount of insights you can gain. In addition to that, you might need to conduct fewer interviews which can more than compensate for the time needed to prepare

Interview Type:

Interviews can either be structured, semi-structured, or unstructured. The more you know about what answers to expect the more structured the interviews can be. 

I would recommend semi-structured interviews to uncover customer needs and wants. That way you stay focused while still leaving room for the customer's perspective. 

Interview Outline and Questions:

An interview outline is not as rigid as a survey. There should be a list of questions to guide the conversation but the interviewer needs to be open to skip or rearrange the outline any time. 

The number one rule of interviewing is to listen and let the interviewee talk. Otherwise, the conversation could be biased towards your perception of the problem. 

Briefly explain the overarching problem you want to talk about and then let your partner speak. Resist the temptation to fill pauses with new questions immediately. Questions should be kept very general like: How do you do this task? Why do you do this? How would you currently solve that? 

Interviewing is hard to master. If it feels unnatural or hard to do, consider hiring an expert. 


While documentation seems like something you do after an interview, you still need to prepare the material and decide how you would like to do it.

The best way is to record the conversation and take no notes during the interview. If the interviewee does not agree to a recording, take notes while or immediately after the interview. 

Interview Training:

If you haven't done any interviews, schedule a time training interview with a team member about a real problem they have. Check on the recording if you let them speak and allow pauses to occur. 

Participant Recruitment:

Finding a fitting interview partner can be done through several channels

  • A screening survey on your website
  • Through an email list
  • On social media sites
  • At offline customer touchpoints
  • Through interview panel


Time: 3/5
Cost: 2/5
Knowledge: 2/5 
Insights potential: 3/5

To identify customer needs, surveys should be used when the frequency of the findings could add value to marketing and product development. Or to use it as a screening tool for user interviews or focus groups. 

You should use open-ended questions to stay open for new input.  However, the discovery of new customer needs is not the strength of questionnaires. 

Any effort to prioritize your findings can benefit from surveys as they add weight to customer needs and pain points as well as validate your assumptions. Therefore, questionnaires are a good complementary method to all other methods mentioned

What Questions to ask?

The best questions for your customer survey highly depend on the insights from prior research like interviews, focus groups, or social studies. 

While most questions of the survey should focus on validation and prevalence of needs. Open-ended questions can be added to get new perspectives in a scalable way. Be aware that the answers might be very short as participants tend to write shorter answers than they would give in direct conversations.

 Good open discovery questions could be: 

  • What are you currently doing to solve the problem?
  • What is the hardest part about that task/problem? 
  • What problems do you have with your current solution?

Where and how to run the survey?

If possible recruit existing website visitors or customers as your participants. Typeform is one of the most common tools that allows the creation of free surveys with limited functionalities. 

Social Listening

Time: 4/5
Cost: 1/5
Knowledge: 3/5 
Insights potential: 4/5

Customers in any industry create a ton of open data in public that is free and ready to use. Social listening is best if you have a small budget or if your target audience is very active on one of those sites. In addition, this method can be used frequently as a long-term strategy to stay in touch with customer problems. 

There are several places to find common questions, product reviews, emotional statements, and more:

Facebook, Reddit, X (Twitter), LinkedIn, Quora:

Social Media platforms and forums are some of the best places to find unfiltered emotions and honest questions about every possible problem space. The hard part is to find the statements that are helpful between thousands of unhelpful ones. 

For Facebook and Reddit it is beneficial to find and join relevant groups around your problem. Beyond this research purpose, it is always a good idea to be part of the same communities as your customers. For X, formerly Twitter and LinkedIn research relevant hashtags and thought leaders. 

One method to quickly find interesting posts on all of those sites is through Google search. Just enter and add your search query. Example: To find relevant posts about credit card chargebacks on Reddit you could search for credit card chargebacks. 

Magazines and books that target your audience:

Find relevant magazines, books, and blogs about the problem you want to understand. Sometimes there is a way readers can comment or write opinions about articles. But even if there isn’t any user-generated content, the topics covered and a most-read section could give valuable insights. You might even consider interviewing the author of those blogs, books, or articles. 

Reviews of existing products: 

For physical products, there are likely reviews on your or your competitor's products on e-commerce sites like Amazon. Those can be very emotional and insightful. For software products sites like or can provide insights into unmet customer needs and wants. 

Competitor Analysis

Time: 2/5
Cost: 1/5
Knowledge: 2/5 
Insights potential: 3/5

Analyzing your competition is always tempting and hence done frequently. But rarely with a  clear focus on customer pain points. This method works well when there are already big brands with a lot of customers. They likely did some research already and tried to meet their customer expectations from marketing material to their feature list. 

Customer complaints can hint that there are still unmet needs the competition missed or can’t fulfill. Besides reviews, the competitor's social media channels could also be a source of customer complaints or appraisals. 

Customer Shadowing

Time: 4/5
Cost: 2/5
Knowledge: 4/5 
Insights potential: 4/5

Field studies like customer shadowing should be used to understand the customers in their user journey. It is especially helpful if there are complex or long steps to accomplish. 

Being a silent observer of your customer's experience can be time-consuming as it can be hard to find the customer before they enter the customer journey of your solution. Observing your customer is best in a live setting even if your product is digital. 

The Participants should be real customers who would use your solution regardless of your research efforts. Otherwise, the observations can only be used to improve overall customer experience. If using your product can not be seen as a one-time event consider a diary study. A job board for example might want to capture the whole process until someone signs the contract to uncover more needs. A live shadowing is impossible but a diary study can lead to similar results. A great tool for that matter is Dscout

Tip: If you do not have a solution yet you can observe customers when using your competitor. 

Focus Groups

Time: 3/5
Cost: 3/5
Knowledge: 5/5 
Insights potential: 4/5

Similar to an interview, focus groups are part of the qualitative methods toolkit. Therefore, you can expect the insights to be quite similar. 

As it can require more skill to recruit and lead a group, a 1-on-1 interview should usually be your method of choice 

But still, there are cases when these groups would lead to better insights than talking to each person separately. When your topic is highly social the interaction between the participants adds value. 

Like with interviews the insights potential is high as you can gain more knowledge through social interaction. Note that the opinions in a group tend to be less diverse as they will influence each other. As this kind of research requires more knowledge, consider getting help from experts if you are not used to conducting qualitative research. 


The 6 Methods in this article are enough to get a very good understanding of the problem space. Nonetheless, the success of your research project highly depends on the correct execution of each method. 

My suggestion would be to always utilize interviews and get very good at conducting those as they are the Swiss army knife of research. In addition to that, social listening is beneficial for everyone working on a product, no matter the stage of the product life cycle. 

If you want to get the most out of one of the more knowledgeable methods, consider external help. Even big companies like Google hire external experts for customer needs analysis.

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