Listen to What I Mean and Not What I Say

Listen to What I Mean and Not What I Say

The other day I was thinking about my college chemistry professor who frequently, but innocently, misspoke. When we called her out on it, her joking response was “Well, you should listen to what I mean and not what I say!”
This memory got me thinking about the applicability of her advice when engaging people during research. I often tell clients, “Don’t put too much weight on everything people say outright. It is better to focus on the parts of the conversation that matter to your innovation process.”

When we interview people we often classify feedback into one of five parts.

  1. Higher Order Need
  2. Need/Want/Desire
  3. Opinion
  4. Solution
  5. Specification

So, which of the above parts matter? All of them matter, but the most important type of feedback is not even on the list.

This “secret feedback” is rarely articulated, but is essential to innovation success. To crack the code, however, you first need to understand the five types of feedback. In doing so, you will get a better handle on what the “secret feedback” is and what it is not.

Five Parts of Feedback

During innovation assignments, participant feedback can be classified into one or more of the following types.

Higher Order Need

The most familiar framework to explain this type of feedback is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Higher order needs are easy to grasp because we are all motivated by them. For innovation, however, they are not specific and actionable enough.


These are critical ingredients to innovation and marketing. Needs (for short) are often preceded with key words like: “I wish that,” “Wouldn’t it be great if…,” “It really bothers me when…,” and “Why doesn’t someone…” For some people, needs can be hard to articulate, thus calling for skilled moderation of the interview. During ideation, common needs/wants/desires are categorized to build preliminary concepts. Merely focusing on needs, however, can still be limiting as this method misses a deeper understanding of what is driving the end-user.


Often preceded with the phrase “I think,” “They are…,” or “She is…,” opinions are easy for most people to articulate. Opinions can be veiled needs as they are from a personal point of view. Again, skilled moderation is often required to peel back the onion to understand what is driving the point of view.

Solutions and Specifications

This is the easiest thing for people to talk about. Solutions are often expressed as a lack of resources, a feature, or functionality. Specifications are typically something that you can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, or measure. When solutions and specifications are expressed, it is essential to understand the root need. In other words, what exactly is driving the desire for more or less of something?

The Power of What

ThePowerofWhatThe “secret feedback” is the what.

What exactly is driving the need for a different solution? What is driving the expressed need, desire, or motivation? The “what” is rarely articulated, and it is difficult to derive from direct feedback. The “what” is often knitted together by “reading between the lines” of the five types of feedback listed above. It also helps to have a deep and intuitive understanding of people and their circumstances—plus knowledge of consumer and customer behavior.

Understanding the what and the associated needs gives you a much more expansive view of the end user. And a more expansive view increases the odds of generating new-to-world or new-to-company ideas.

So, my chemistry professor had it right. It’s the what people mean, and not what they say that really matters. Think about it.

1 Comment

  1. Jack Hamilton Reply

    Good article. One comment. Getting to the right “what” in FEI requires understanding of the “why”. The why expresses the problem, not the solution. Good FEI is never limited to the what, it asks the why.

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