Converting Need into Demand, or Putting People First

Chapter 2 of Change By Design is called “Converting Need into Demand, or Putting People First.”

“Certain themes and variations – techniques of observation, principles of empathy, and efforts to move beyond the individual – can all be thought of as ways of preparing the mind of the design thinker to find insight: from the seemingly commonplace as well as the bizarre, from the rituals of everyday life but also the exceptional interruptions to those rituals, and from the average to the extreme.” – Tim Brown, Change by Design, Chapter 2.

This quote describes Brown’s process for converting need into demand — that is, using observation, empathy, and behavioral insights to create solutions.

Uncovering Needs

Human beings are extremely adaptable. I’m not going to quote Dan Gilbert’s TED talk about lottery winners and paraplegics (long story), but suffice to say, in the long run, people adapt extremely well.

As Brown says about people adapting to things, “they sit on their sear belts, write their PINS on their hands, hang their jackets on doorknobs, and chain their bicycles to park benches.”

Because of this adaptive behavior, people often don’t even realize their needs. People are so accustomed to adapting, they CAN’T EXPRESS THEIR NEEDS, let alone describe a better solution.

This being the case, the Design Thinker’s challenge is “helping people to articulate the latent needs they may not even know they have.”

So how do you get people to identify and articulate latent needs? Insight, Observation, Empathy


Brown says that to generate insight into human behavior, design thinkers need to get out into the world and observe people. Watch people do the “thoughtless acts” they aren’t even aware they are doing.

(I have to be honest – I read this section multiple times and I can’t quite tell why it’s titled Insight and not Observation.)

Design is a process that ends with something that did not exist before. Contrast that with solving for X in a mathematical equation. With design thinking, it’s not a matter of uncovering a previously hidden solution, but rather often identifying the problem itself and inventing a solution that never existed before.


You guessed it, this section is about getting out into the world and seeing what’s actually happening. Brown advocates watching what people do and what they don’t do. He says to listen to what they say and what they don’t say. I don’t have much to add – this stuff is simple but not easy. You have to actually get off your ass and do it.

Another good nugget on observation: watch people who are not your target market. IDEO was designing cookware for everyday people, so they went and watched children cook. They also watched professional chefs. Neither group was the target market, but observing both groups led to applicable insights.


Empathy describes the final step – the synthesis of all of the observation and insights into a first-hand feel for the need.

Empathy is about standing and walking in the shoes of your consumer. Or, as one person who worked for IDEO experienced, it is about going through the hospital with a camera in hand in order to capture first-hand that “patient journey.”

Empathy is much more related to this concept of “experience” than it is to observation. It describes when a design thinker feels the need herself, and is thus able to draw upon her skill-set to create the solution to “her” need.

More than Just Making Iterative Improvements

Peter Drucker said that a designer is someone who “converts need into demand.” Interesting quote.

But is it really that simple? Tim Brown writes that for Design Thinkers, it actually goes beyond that.

“The evolution from Design to Design Thinking is the story of the evolution from the creation of products to the analysis of the relationship between people and products, and from there to the relationship between people and people.” Tim Brown, Change by Design, Chapter 2.

In other words, just taking EXPLICIT consumer needs and acting upon them to make better products results in a faster horse. It results in incremental innovation. There is a time and place for that, but Design Thinking aims higher. Design Thinking aims to invent the car when everyone is riding a horse.