Helping clients want what they need

March 30, 2007 commentary 3 min read

In his keynote at RailsConf 2006, Martin Fowler said something to the effect of, “Clients will tell you what they want, it’s your job to figure out what they need.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I decided that there is more to it than that.

The problem is that it doesn’t matter whether or not clients’ wants match their needs; most of them won’t be happy unless they get what they want. So, our job is not only to figure out what clients need, but to help them want what they need.

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells about Herman Miller’s Aeron chair. The Aeron’s designer set out to make the most ergonomically correct chair imaginable; a chair with better shoulder support that breathes and is comfortable for people stuck at their desks for long periods of time; the chair that people needed. The result: “a slender, transparent concoction of black plastic and odd protuberances and a mesh that looked like the exoskeleton of a giant prehistoric insect.” Testers did not take kindly to it. “Just about everyone thought their chair was a monstrosity.”

The Aeron had very little resemblance to the throne-like cushy chairs that everyone wanted. As a result, the Aeron received fairly low scores, especially in the area of visual appeal. However, once people started using the chair, the scores started to improve. Before long, the Aeron became the most popular chair in the industry. Gladwell notes that the comfort or design of the chair didn’t actually change, but people’s expectations changed. The chair started to win design awards, and all of the sudden, it was the chair that people wanted.

Had Herman Miller designed the chair that everyone wanted, or listened to the experts when they said it was a “monstrosity”, the world would have never known the Aeron chair. But they didn’t. Instead, they designed a chair that the world needed-that wasn’t soft and cushy-and let people use it. And in using it, people decided for themselves that this was the chair they wanted.

Giving clients what they need and doing it well should be enough to convince them that it is what they want.

But what if it’s not? Clients come to us with specific goals in mind and usually think they have a good idea of what they want. How do we walk clients down a path of self-discovery to reveal what they actually need without insulting their intelligence?

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avatar of Brandon Keepers I am Brandon Keepers, and I work at GitHub on making Open Source more approachable, effective, and ubiquitous. I tend to think like an engineer, work like an artist, dream like an astronaut, love like a human, and sleep like a baby.