Using This Framework: A Guide

The intention of this framework is to enable anyone to use what is most relevant to them, and to modify each component as they see fit. We offer three approaches (outlined below) as starting points for engaging the framework. Remember that each of these is simply a guide—feel free to adapt it to fit your skills, needs, and context.


A light touch engagement is an accessible yet still meaningful entry point for understanding users if you have limited experience in Needfinding, limited time to execute a Needfinding process, or both.

Estimated Time Needed:

You will likely spend between 3.5 to 5 days total to complete a light touch engagement. Expect about one day of preparation (establishing goals, preparing research guide, identifying interviewees and coordinating interviews), 1.5 to 3 days for interviews (at least 2 hours per interview: half hour of prep, an hour interview, and a half hour debrief), and 1 day of analysis.

Get Started:

The single most important starting point is to establish the goals and research questions for your project. If you do nothing else, this single exercise will allow you to continually orient your work toward what you aim to accomplish.

Following the development of goals and questions, conducting interviews is the most accessible way to start collecting information to serve those goals. Frame your interview questions in ways that will provide answers to your research questions and thus serve your overall goals.

Identifying and reaching the best individuals to interview can take time. Start with those who are relatively easy to access and help you gain the understanding you desire. For example, if one of your goals is to better understand your user, reach out to people you know who use your tool. Use these interviews with familiar individuals to practice your interview skills and hone your interview guide. Once you have practiced and revised, you can begin to reach out to those you know less well, and begin to interview users with different backgrounds, skills and experiences to gain a deeper understanding. You can ask people in your social network as well as the people you interview for other suggestions on who else to interview, what relevant events you should attend, and for any other resources such as blogs and research papers that can provide you with valuable knowledge.

In addition to scheduled interviews, use convenings, forums and conferences to connect with people to further your contextual understanding while continuing to work toward your research goals. When you have limited time or encounter unexpected, but important stakeholders, engage them with intercept interviews rather than full interviews.

When you have conducted a reasonable number of interviews and intercepts (a great goal is to conduct at least 10 interviews and/or intercept engagements to start) conduct a basic analysis process by answering your original research questions based on the data you have collected and adjust your questions and goals based on your new understanding. The most important part of the analysis process is debriefing, which is a simple and brief analysis session after every major thing you do such as an interview or a group convening. Debriefing is important because you quickly lose details and nuanced understanding as time passes after an activity or interview. Remember to debrief after every exercise you conduct.


A standard engagement enables you to dive deeper into understanding your users and can still be done without significant experience in Needfinding.

Estimated Time Needed:

You will likely spend a total of 3 weeks to complete a standard engagement. You can expect approximately 5 days of planning (developing research plan, preparing interview guide, visual activities, identifying interviewees and coordinating interviews, site visits, group engagement), 7 days for information gathering (at least 2 hours per interview: half hour of prep, an hour interview, and a half hour debrief), and 3 days of analysis of findings. These three weeks of work will likely need to be spread out over a longer period of time due to the logistics involved with executing such a process.

Get Started:

The starting point for a standard engagement is to go beyond simply establishing the goals and research questions for your project and to develop a full research plan. This plan should be a living document that changes as you move forward, gain new insights, allow you to modify your approach as needed, add new research questions, and come up with additional activities. Despite the evolving nature of this plan, you should complete it to the best of your ability as your first step realizing it will likely evolve and also serve as an anchor to you throughout your discovery.

After you’re sufficiently satisfied with your research plan, your next step will be to develop a list of potential interviewees in an interview guide and then start with a few initial interviews. These interviewees should represent multiple perspectives in the goals and research questions you have defined. With the longer time span that comes with a standard engagement versus a light touch engagement, plan your interviews in phases so you can accommodate increased understanding you will gain throughout the process. Start by interviewing 4 to 8 individuals with a range of backgrounds and expertise that are relevant to your research goals. Then pause and re-evaluate your list of potential interviewees and the interview guide before continuing with additional interviews.

An important component of a standard engagement is to break out of simply performing one-on-one interviews. Do this by conducting a facilitated group convening where potential users are brought together to discuss a curated set of topics and activities. The context of a group convening allows you to unlock additional needs through facilitating conversation and observing how a group responds and builds on each other’s experience and perspective. Logistics can feel like a barrier to convene groups of users. However, this can be mitigated by working with intermediary organizations, such as human rights advocacy groups, that have existing relationships with potential users. Not only can intermediary groups alleviate some of the logistical burden of finding users, but think through and articulate how your work can positively impact their mission. Work together as allies to gather accurate, quality data. You can also take advantage of other convenings, such as conferences and workshops, to reduce the logistical challenges.

Group convenings are an excellent place to utilize visual exercises. These activities leverage creative expression as opposed to strictly verbal communication in order to understand your user and unlock their needs. Visual exercises do not need to be restricted to group convenings; however, they can be utilized during individual interviews or with small groups convened opportunistically at events or workshops.

With the increased number of information collecting exercises in the standard engagement comes an increased need for focused analysis of your findings. Design an analysis process that will allow you to follow up with a debrief (brief analysis) after every activity – interviews, convening, and shadows – so that information is captured and processed while it is still fresh in your mind. Also take time during your multiple points in the process to do more focused sessions to draw out trends, patterns and surprises from a series of completed research activities. You can also develop personas as part of your analysis process if you determine that will be helpful in addressing your research goals.

An example of a standard engagement is SecondMuse’s work with digital activists from Vietnam. The approach, data and analysis from this work are detailed in Understanding Internet Freedom: Vietnam’s Digital Activists.


An extended research engagement with this framework includes all of the elements of a standard engagement, but in a much more rigorous form.

Estimated Time Needed:

This type of engagement will require a minimum of 6 weeks, but 8 weeks is suggested (this includes at least two weeks spent immersed within a community of users or potential users). The team conducting the research should be at least three individuals, ideally including one person who is intimately familiar with the community you are working with. Ample time should be allowed to process and analyze the results following the research engagement. Keep in mind that these 6 to 8 weeks will likely not be consecutive – planning such an in depth engagement takes time to handle things out of your control, such as waiting on travel plans, interviewees, and conflicting schedules of team members and participants.

Get Started:

In the light and standard engagements, the majority of the suggested activities are opportunistic by taking advantage of existing events and gatherings. For an extended engagement with this framework, we suggest that you plan and execute your research in partnership with a community of users and potential users – spending time in the field with users.

The elements of a standard engagement should be scaled to support this extended research engagement. When planning interviews, you may wish to focus early interviews on identifying potential user communities to work with. Conduct multiple group convenings focusing on different groups of users with different priorities and concerns. Conduct multiple shadow activities with a diversity of organizations or individuals. Plan repeated analysis activities throughout the process, particularly when in the field for the extended research engagement.

Take the time during an extended engagement to conduct at least one shadow activity. Shadowing allows you to observe needs through an extended engagement with individuals or groups over the course of a meaningful period of time – ideally two weeks – where you can observe and spend time with users in a setting that is natural to them such as a typical daily activity, work task or meeting. Spending a day or an afternoon with potential users opens up yet another avenue for uncovering needs, this time through the observation of daily behavior.

The extended engagement also gives you a wealth of data with which you can create meaningful personas. Develop personas as part of your analysis process if you determine that will be helpful in addressing your research goals.

An example of an advanced application of this framework, including an extended research engagement, is SecondMuse’s work with the Tibetan Exile Community in Dharamsala, India. The approach, data and analysis from this work are detailed in Understanding Internet Freedom: The Tibetan Exile Community.

If you are planning an advanced application of this framework we invite you to reach out to us. We are happy to advise you on your approach based on our own experience. You can reach us at