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How to detect demand

At last, we’re seeing discussion about the demand side of product/market fit analysis. Misunderstood demand turned hundreds of digital initiatives into waste over the past decade. Previously, we outlined the need/must/want framework to help product teams combat demand-side fantasy. This time we focus on sensing and measuring demand for a given offering.

When developing an offering, most product managers, engineers, and MBA types focus on external problems like inefficiencies and downtime and solve directly for them. Savvier, investigative types unpack their potential customers’ thinking, exploring customers’ cognitive reasoning (usually through interviews), behavior (through observation) and, rarely, affect (through mixed methods). All provide critical meaning to a product or service offering, but even with a boatload of R\&D and documentation, uncertainty looms over your potential success: will market demand pull your offering, or must you push it forever?

You won’t know unless you can sense demand.

Why is sensing demand so difficult?

Demand feels inscrutable because product teams and researchers lack the mode of inquiry required to detect it. For all people—you, your prospective customers, and your market—perception is the door to reality. Sadly, well-described, communicable summaries of your prospects’ perception of your brand and your offering from their positions is the measurable reality most often missing from a product pitch, sales forecasts, and most tragically, product engineering discussions.

The good news is that a target buyer or user’s individual perception of your offering can be measured and understood. The bad news is that detecting, capturing, and communicating someone else’s perception to a broader product development team will require more empathy and more time than most researchers or product managers have. We’ll begin with the what, and then explore the how.

Determine your starting position

Economists define demand as a combination of consumers’ desire to acquire something and their willingness to pay a specific price for it. We’ll need to go deeper and become more personal to be useful.

For today’s purpose, demand reflects another person’s perception about how an offering will impact their life. Demand can manifest as:

  1. Needs. Solutions to problems they have that are still voluntary buys (irregular demand).
  2. Musts. Purchases required to maintain one’s existence (slow demand).
  3. Wants. Products and services people desire (fast demand).

Our first objective: determine which category (if any) our offering fits into to establish our base position. The base position is the cognitive station that your sampled market defaults to when considering your offering:

Feeling + context = base position


  • Feeling: how a person instinctively reacts to your offering.
  • Context: uncontrollable contextual influence that applies to your perceiver at the moment of feeling, often a mix of environmental and personal.
  • Base position: an individual’s default, entropic perception state prior to any internal or extra-contextual influence.

Your base position is also the starting point that your brand, marketing, and sales actions have to move aware customers from toward stronger demand.

How to measure demand

To sense demand and determine your base position, you’ll need to employ two kinds of research: positive and normative.

Positive research requires neutral and measurable observations of activity, action, or reaction. Generally, positivism seeks understanding of natural law, principles about the world as it is without bias.

Normative research introduces stimuli and embraces interpretation to establish what should be, weighting human preference, bias, and need in an effort to find or determine standards. Your intelligence collection research must be positive before it becomes normative, establishing a baseline so you can detect change and infer meaning from evidence.

You can measure demand with a series of four research operations focused on:

  1. Buyer priorities
  2. User status quo
  3. Your impact on users
  4. Your impact’s relevance to buyers

We make a loop from buyer to users and back to buyers. If your users and potential customers are the same people, you’ll need to conduct a minimum of two research operations progressing from positive to normative (blend 1 and 2, blend 3 and 4). If your users and customers aren’t the same people, you’ll need to conduct all four intelligence ops. Most often, people fully bake their offering up front and skip straight to step 4, blowing right past the baseline understanding necessary to understand what your offering changes for your audience.

1. Priorities

Perspective: positive

Method: interviews

Objective: understand if there’s an opening for your offering and where it might be

Interview those hypothetical buyers who control your users’ context, learn how they think, and understand their priority list. Whatever you’re doing needs to be on it somewhere. Do not mention your offering.

2. A day in the life of

Perspective: positive

Method: primary observation

Objective: understand users’ life with the task your offering targets (and especially the context) as it stands without your product

Your product undoubtedly helps people accomplish or enjoy something. Research your potential users’ active preferences and behaviors in their context independent of your product. Visit the site, whatever it is, even if it’s just a computer in a dingy office. Meet the people. Discuss what’s going on. Take that field trip! Again, do not mention your offering or you’ll poison your baseline.

3. Seeking impact

Perspective: normative

Method: primary observation, follow-up interviews

Objective: understand how your offering changes users’ mode of action and determine if they prefer it over the status quo

Now for the kind of researchers that UXers live for: see how prospective users perform their assigned tasks with your offering (stimuli) in their context of use. Use whichever specific method works best: usability tests/contextual inquiry/ethnography, blind/observed/guided, remote/in-person, whatever. Collect behavioral and preferential data that, when synthesized and compared to your baseline, illustrates how users:

  1. Perceive your offering before use
  2. Use your offering in their context
  3. See your offering in their lives after use

Don’t skip that post-test questionnaire: before and after user enthusiasm (or lack of enthusiasm) will likely be your single most critical finding. After this point, you should be able to describe precisely why users find your offering valuable.

4. Do buyers care?

Perspective: normative

Method: interviews and/or data-backed sales

Objective: determine your offering’s ultimate relevance

If you’ve found promising results after performing research operations 1–3, you’ve essentially created your offering’s first case study. You’ve also become able to articulate why users find your offering valuable, so it’s time to use that. Put your sales hat on!

Set up some meetings with buyers, either in the context of a sales pitch or a follow-up interview. Here’s the part that separates a great product from a great success: when you confront prospective buyers with real information about how your product changed users’ day-to-day, do you get a “that’s nice” or an “I’m interested”? You could get a “that’s nice…but wait a minute…” or an “I’m interested, but…” as well—all four answers signal something. From there, drill into the whats, whys, hows, whos, wheres, and whens to see where you really stand.

No illusions

Before you begin, please recognize the following:

Context is king. You’ll notice a heavy emphasis on context throughout. Labs and controlled environments have no place here—pulling subjects from their context will change their perception and wreck your data.

This is not science. It’s definitely not objective, and it won’t be perfect. The whole point is that it’s not. Your product’s future depends entirely on others’ non-rational, non-objective, influenced decision-making, and that’s what you’ll immerse yourself in.

Perspective overlap. You’ve also certainly noticed the conditioning component of this research method: as the investigator, you’ve merged your perception into someone else’s. Conducting this research will taint the researcher’s perspective. Unless you plan to detain a representative sample of your audience, you the researcher become more than just the communicator, you’re market’s emissary to your product development team.

How to describe demand

Describing demand usefully requires simplicity. You might expect to prepare a large tree of if/then statements and contextual provisos, but like code, understanding doesn’t matter if it’s not deployed.

First, we recommend summarizing prospects’ fundamental perception of your offering (base position) into a two-part perception, because format. Here are a few example sentences describing a target audience’s base position of an offering:

  • “Most people are going to see this as a scam because it reminds them of ______.”
  • “Most potential customers feel that switching away from labor and switching to our robots will disrupt their operations too much and wear down their operating margin during a transition.”
  • “People want this to work but must see to believe as it sounds too simple.”
  • “The first thing they see is the extra work our solution requires because they have to undo what exists to do a new thing.”

Next, if you’ve learned anything that could reform your base perception and improve or even upgrade demand, describe that required change as a second sentence:

“People want this to work but must see to believe as it sounds too simple. Once they experience it themselves, they understand how it might help them.”

We’ve all heard designers lament that leaders, engineers, and product managers already assume what the solution should be and simply push that assumption forward instead of going through a research-driven process. Those engineers are experts who live to solve problems. Use their superpower by feeding it correct information. Their instinctive solution is probably correct if they have the appropriate context.

Next Mile’s customers’ new products succeed in part because they conduct demand research early with our assistance. Contact us if you want to be sure before you scale.

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