Wednesday, October 1, 2008

In which I am challenged to dig into my encyclopedic knowledge of scientific psychology

Dear Professor,

I am writing to you because I would like to have your advice on how to find literature or studies on a certain topic and I am having trouble finding them on my own.

When developing a new products/services, there is a phase of the user- based research where the researcher tries to assess the “consumer’s latent needs”. It is said to be more of an art than a science. It usually occurs during an observational session, interview or beta testing.

A “latent need” could be defined as a need that the user has but is unaware of and cannot define when asked. The user frequently only realizes the existence of a “latent need” when she/he is presented with a product which addresses/satisfies the need. In this moment everything becomes that there was an obvious need for this product in the past and it is seemingly “strange” that no one has invented it before. This term is frequently used in marketing terminology. Good examples of these “needs” are: the necessity of being able to store money in a place other than your home or under your bed (BANK), to buy an item for which you do not have all the cash on your person at the time (CREDIT CARD), the ability to temporarily stick notes on all surfaces (POST-Its), etc.

Therefore my question for you is, is there a “psychological term” for a latent need? Have there been any studies regarding this subject?

Dear Z,

Mainstream psychologists have not studied latent needs. However, your question could be rephrased to be a specific variant of a more general topic that has been well studied: the habits of mind which prevent us from being able to see solutions to existing problems. In particular, I recommend Howard Margolis' Paradigms and Barriers: How Habits of Mind Govern Scientific Beliefs

Innovative product ideas like those you mentioned (e.g., Post-its, or think about famous intermittent car windshield wiper) can be understood as creative breakthroughs similar to the scientific breakthroughs discussed by Margolis. You wondered if psychologists have studied latent needs, and if not, why not. You noticed that it is quite interesting and even puzzling why people frequently hadn't noticed their need until the solution was posed, and then apparently suddenly felt the need had been present all along, but had been unnoticed.

To the extent that people don't recognize needs until the solution is presented, I propose that the reason why people apparently hadn't noticed the need before they saw the solution, is the same reason why the solution took so long: because people have mental habits which keep them thinking in a fixed routine. Their mental assumptions about the world entail that the problem doesn't have a solution, so they just keep stepping through their routine. I submit that they grumble, complain, and are annoyed, but the reason they don't look for a solution is not because they don't have a need, but because they haven't conceived of a solution being possible.

Let me illustrate my position with the case of post-it notes. Is it really plausible that no one had previously noticed the need to stick notes to any surface? I suspect masses of people had been annoyed at not having tape handy, were disgruntled by notes falling out of the pages of books or blowing off surfaces. But they assumed this is insurmountable because that had accepted long-standing and true generalizations about how glue works: glue is permanent and detaching a previously glued paper tears and wrecks the material. It was the accidental discovery of a very weak "glue" by chemists at 3M that led to the innovation of post-its.

I thus propose that your question is well-studied by psychologists, but they approach it from the angle of: what habits of mind keep us from seeing solutions to problems. The voluminous psychological work on creativity is only a click away.

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