The single most powerful tool that Product Managers have to make products that amaze and delight their users is to figure out what problems their customers have that they don’t even realize are causing them pain. Most people didn’t understand the benefits of 1,000 songs in their pocket when Apple first introduced the iPod back in the day, but MP3 players have now merged with our cell-phones and morphed into online streaming services to provide an ever-present library of whatever music strikes our fancy at the time. Sure, they weren’t the first, nor were they the fanciest, but Jobs and Co. tapped into something important — the latent need for us to have our music with us, wherever we were, in a package small enough to slip into our pocket.
There’s a lot of truth to be found in the classic mis-attributed (and possibly entirely fabricated) “Henry Ford” quote, “If I’d asked people what they’d wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” People know what their obvious pains are, what the problems are that they experience every day — but most people only examine those pains at a very superficial layer. Someone who tells you they want a better way to manage the password on their work computer, for example, might never consider how much simpler it could be to simply add a biometric fingerprint scanner to their desk that would save them both time and effort. Customers focus on their current pain, and want that solved immediately — and they’re satisfied when you do so for them. But they’re amazed when you discover a problem that they didn’t even know they had, and deliver that solution from the word “go”.
It’s the difference between evolution and revolution, between iteration and innovation.
What is a Latent Need?
A “latent need” is, quite simply, a problem that a user, customer, or market doesn’t realize that they even have. These problems could be fundamental assumptions about how their market, products, or processes work; or they could be underlying dysfunctions in the technology or interactions that people engage with on a daily basis. Latent needs are those that go unspoken, primarily because someone either thinks they’re “too silly” to be a focal point for someone to solve for, because people think that it’s just “how things work”, or even just because people tend not to take a lot of time analyzing the root cause of their daily pains and frustrations — after all, there’s “real” work to do, right?
And that’s why it takes a good Product Manager to dive in and drive out these latent needs — to engage with real customers in meaningful conversation about their day-to-day experiences. We need to be pattern-recognition experts and see where things that appear entirely disparate actually converge on a real source of frustration that hides itself underneath the foibles of our users. It’s no longer enough to just solve a problem that everyone knows they have — that’s mere iteration and evolution. Rather, it’s essential that we work with our market, our customers, and our technology partners to identify and tackle these latent needs so that we can innovate and revolutionize our market space.
How Do We Discover Latent Needs?
Latent needs exist well below the surface, and exist in the space where users come together and provide real, insightful, and detailed feedback to the folks who talk with them all the time — the Sales team and the Support team in your organization are essential partners in identifying opportunities to explore what might be compelling latent needs. Even your marketing team can be a strong resource, as they are likely reviewing the positioning and messaging across the market, which can be a strong indicator that there are some problems worth exploring deeper. But your best resource is going to be your own, personal, detailed interactions with your customer, and one simply question:
This is the single most important question that any Product Manager must ask their customers in order to derive from their stated problems what their underlying, unstated assumptions, expectations, and pain points are. It is only by asking this one question, repeatedly, that we can drive beyond the superficial statement of a problem that our user begins the discussion with, and get to their underlying motivations and real emotional needs. This is how we discover the deep connection that our customers have to their daily problems, and where the “magic” opportunities to delight our customers lie. I personally like to follow what I call the Rule of Five Whys — in any discussion of pain points and customer needs, you should attempt to ask “Why” at least five times in order to get to the underlying cause of their problems and identify the opportunities to surprise and delight them. “Why” is such a great question because it’s entirely open-ended; it invites someone to tell you a story, to describe things in a way that they probably don’t think about them, and ultimately to drive to the root causes of their concerns.
So You Think You’ve Solved a Latent Need?
The real “trick” when solving a latent need is that you’re targeting something that your customers and users aren’t screaming and pounding the table for, but that you sincerely believe solves a single underlying cause of multiple pain points. Which means that there’s some finesse that you’ll need to use, and a lot of customer and user validation that needs to happen before you can really be sure that you’ve solved it. The finesse comes in positioning the solution when you’re initially contacting users — because it’s not their “faster horse” you’ll have to do at least a little convincing and positioning to explain how it actually solves more problems than the “faster horse” that they wanted…with bonus points for tying your underlying latent solution to one or more “faster horse” problems. And the validation is required because you’ll need to make sure that the latent need you’ve identified is actually a need, and that your solution actually addresses it (and hopefully other, more superficial, pain points). Ignoring the process of problem and solution validation is never a good idea, but it’s absolutely deadly in the domain of solving latent customer needs.