Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Testing Skills #9 - Differentiating between wants and needs

One common discussion that keeps cropping up from testers saying that their managers are telling them that they 'want' this and that they 'want' that.  Normally in connection with 100% test automation or some other new shiny testing discussion point. A crucial skill a tester can have is the ability to separate what some one wants and what they really need.

It is common for people to not see the huge difference between these two words but having the ability to do so can improve your testing skill set.

The difference between the two is easy to explain with the following scenario.

Imagine that you have decided that you to be fitter and to do so you decide you want to be able to swim ten miles in one session.

Now ten miles is a lot and since the average human swims at about  two mph that is going to take about five hours to complete. You may never get around to meeting this want but you may come close.

Now one day you decide that you want to go sailing off the coast of Britain, you sail out to ten miles from the coast when suddenly the boat is hit by a huge wave and destroys it.  You are ten miles from the coast and if you do not make it back within five hours you will die due to the exposure to the cold water.  You now need to swim 10 miles in a single session.

This is the difference between wants and needs.  What people want is not necessarily what they need.

As a tester you should try and uncover what people need when they say they want this or that.  In the test automation example  it is useful to probe deeper and ask what is the problem they are trying to resolve.  By doing this you can get to the needs rather than the wants.

When the manager says "They want to automate all the testing" delve deeper to understand the problem the manager is trying to solve.  Ask "Why do they want to try and automate all of the testing?", "Uncover the needs so that you can understand what is being asked.

** The story about swimming is not my own and I cannot recollect where I first heard this.  If any of the readers can let me know where it is from I will add the correct attribution. 


  1. Why?
    I can get the difference between what the client (management, in this case is a client) wants and what the client says he wants - but that want is a valid thing. Understanding the needs of a client is important, but it is only part of the picture. I think that the goal should be to understand what will satisfy the wants of the client - it won't always be what the client asks for, but often it will be more than bare minimal needs.

    1. How do you know the 'want is a valid thing?'

      Want indicates a desire to have something.

      Need indicates something that is essential or important.

      Understanding this difference can help you work out what is of value to the person asking.

  2. I think I'm with Always fearful here.

    Is the distinction that you're really trying to draw between "what they say they want" and "something that would satisfy the intent behind the want"? (But still might not be needed.)

    Related, you can get some idea of implicit prioritisation of stakeholder desires by listening carefully to the language they use around them, e.g.

    1. Hi James

      It is rather interesting that people get confused with the distinct between something they would like (a want) and something that is necessary (a need).

      And yes it is going deeper and asking what would as you put it "the intent behind the want". It is using critical thinking to solve the problem of what is being asked for. As human beings we do try to ask for more than we need, it is a survival instinct. I should have been clearer in the article that understands the difference between want and needs is vital to ensure delivery of the right product.