I'm taking an online HCI class over at https://www.coursera.org/ Our first assignment is a "needfinding" assignment, where I'm supposed to observe people and come up with an idea of how technology can help solve a problem or fill a gap that I notice. Ultimately, I will be designing a web app.

I'm having a really hard time coming up with ideas. It's probably that I'm inexperienced in this realm, but I wonder if anyone can give me tips or ideas on how they go about this.

I need to observe an activity and comes up with ideas on how to fix problems I see around that activity related to (1) person or social change OR (2) redesigning a dashboard to fit our needs - think an iPhone home screen OR (3) how we experience/interact with time.

I'd like to go through the course, completing the assignments so I get a better idea of how all of this works. But, like I already said, I'm having a hard time coming up with ideas. More generally, I'm having a hard time coming up with ideas for how to observe people using something / doing something that can be improved or fixed with a web app. How should I approach and think about this?


  • This looks like an odd question here, but never the less interesting. I'd tune down the course assignment thing and focus more on observing user needs, to get more valid answers and minimize the threat of this question being closed. You could also browse the questions on User Behaviour tag + test, and see if you can find some ideas there ux.stackexchange.com/… Sep 27, 2012 at 13:44
  • 2
    And if you have more assignments like this in the future just think "In my regular life, where do I get frustrated" and go from there :D Sep 27, 2012 at 14:12

3 Answers 3


Some potential places/activities to watch:

Grocery shopping -- there are probably plenty of ways to improve that

Mass transit -- If you've got abundant mass transit in your town

Office workflow -- If you're currently employed in an office

Starbucks -- watch how people interact at a coffee shop and try to improve that in some way

  • After watching them, then figure out pain points: did anyone have odd questions for baristas at starbucks? Were people confused which subway stop to take? How did the cashiers at the grocery store handle produce that wasn't labeled? Sep 27, 2012 at 13:48
  • Thanks. This gave me more ideas, especially your comment about grocery stores.
    – Mark Bubel
    Sep 27, 2012 at 13:54
  • I'm accepting this as my answer because it sparked some good ideas, but thanks to everyone else that commented / will comment.
    – Mark Bubel
    Sep 27, 2012 at 14:18

Imagine doing a search in iTunes for an app using search terms based on the context. Imagine there are three results. Give these apps names. Now ask yourself, if I were to install these apps, what would I expect they would do?

Edward De Bono's books outline many techniques for creative thinking, you might consider some of his books on the subject of creative idea generation. One simple technique is to associate a random word from the dictionary with a problem, which often makes for surprising conclusions.

Another thing to consider is, once you choose a topic, identify the goals that cause activity. Break the activity into sub-activities, and identify which activities introduce friction or distraction from the goals that initiate that activity.


When I'm designing websites for Clients, what I do before I begin is look at their competition's websites and find faults/things I don't like about them or things that don't work. I then figure out why they don't work. When you've got the why, move on to how you can improve it.

So basically, you need to figure out:

  1. What is wrong with an already existing service/website.
  2. Why doesn't it behave as it should, or why isn't it as good as it should be.
  3. How can you make it better.

Here's a little scenario:
Lately I've been ordering pizza's a lot more often than usual. My local pizza shop used Flash for a large portion of their site - especially for online ordering.

The problem:
Flash is slow. Flash compatibility is inconsistent across platforms and devices. Flash content is prone to memory leaks which, more often than not, can cause your entire browser window to become unresponsive and eventually crash, just to name a few.

The Flash-based ordering system was incredibly slow when loading pizza's that can be ordered. And the main problem was that when it came time to fill out the ordering form, the input in Flash is absolutely terrible (in this particular case, anyway).

So, we have the what, and now here's the why: The problem in this case was the excessive, and incredibly poorly-implemented use of Flash.

Which leaves us with the how. How can we make it better?

One example would be to use pure JavaScript with AJAX calls and appropriate use of CSS features to make it look great. Flash is not necessity for this. A bonus to using plain content as opposed to Flash is that your entire menu is more easily found by search engines - that means that it'll be easier for customers/potential customers to find your content.

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