Design approach and capturing the "needs"

In the latest issue of ACM interactions, Steve Portigal's column is a categorization of different "approaches to making stuff" that I found both insightful and ironically intriguing:

"Be a Genius and Get It Right (James Dyson): Be a Genius and Get It Wrong (Dean Kamen) Don't Ask Customers If This Is What They Want Do What Any Customer Asks Understand Needs and Design to Them"

Why do I blog this? an interesting typology of design, perhaps to exhaustive but that certainly tackle relevant issues. For example, one of my favorite is certainly the "Do What Any Customer Asks" as it is often the case with people confusing "user centered design" with "doing what users asked". This is a problem I face very regularly when describing my work: there is this idea that being user-centric is about giving users what they want/asked. Which is of course different than what they need or would desire, since there is a wide gap between what people say to do/want and what they really do/need. It definitely shows the interesting tension in design between relying on users' practice or inventing new futures. As Steve points out, the point is a feature request should be translated in a need request. He takes the example of a customer who want a handle; the important thing here is not that the person wants specifically a handle but simply a way to move the thing from one place to another, and the handle is only a solution instance. So what's a better way to get it? It's all about grasping the needs:

"Needs, as considered in this approach, can be functional, like when a design firm discovered women shoveling snow more than men and redesigned the ergonomics of a snow shovel for this typically smaller user. Needs can also be emotional, such as when Sunbeam studied the backyard-grilling process and realized that the grill itself was associated with family moments and social connectivity rather than a set of meat-cooking features. Sunbeam then worked with Continuum to design the Coleman Grill to connote nostalgic camping cookouts. Needs can deal with shifting mental models of common behaviors, too. Work by B/R/S for Colgate identified that brushing teeth is seen by people as a way to maintain their entire mouth, not just scouring the surface of the teeth. This led to Colgate Total, which promises "Superior Oral Health.""