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NA TIG Week: Ryan Watkins Words Matter: As is the case with needs

I am Ryan Watkins from George Washington University. Needs have been described and defined in many different ways of the years (see the December issue of New Directions in Evaluation for elaboration). One consequence of this often perplexing medley of definitions is that the word need has lost much of its meaning. Here I will try to help clarify some important relationships with a little additional precision to our language around needs we can greatly improve our results.

Lesson Learned:

When conducting a needs assessment…

  1. Differentiate Needs from Solutions. It is easy to get tangled up in the distinction between needs and solutions to needs. Don’t confuse what you want to accomplished (closing needs) with the activities and resources used to achieve those results (such as, homeless shelters, mobile phones, and even money).
  1. Use Need as a Noun, not as a Verb. You do NOT need to buy a new car. Nor do they need Internet access. These are options that may (or may not) help satisfy needs. Yet, by using need as a verb (or in a verb sense) we commit ourselves to one solution (a car, or Internet access) before we define the need. Rather, use need as a noun (50% reduction in gender-based violence this year) so that you have a basis for comparing potential solutions and guiding decisions.   
  1. Don’t Confuse Needs and Wants. Really strong wants or desires are frequently elevated to the status of needs through our choice of words. Just ask any 3-year-old in a toy store if they want or need a shiny new toy. Don’t confuse the two.
  1. Expand to Include Individual, Group, and Societal Needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs popularized the concept that needs are individual. Nevertheless, groups (such as, teams, organizations, and institutions) have needs, as do societies.   Quality needs assessments recognize and align needs across three levels.
  1. Balance Needs and Felt-Needs. Felt-needs are often described as those perceived by the community rather than defined by an external expert. Both views on needs can be valuable. Recognize however that while people have perceptions of needs, their perceptions may not be an accurate reflection of reality. News reports, for example, may distort peoples’ perceptions on crime rates in a city. Therefore, integrate externally verifiable measures of needs in all assessments.

Rad Resource:

This blog is based on: Watkins, R., & Kavale, J. (2014). Needs: Defining what you are assessing. In J. W. Altschuld & R. Watkins (Eds.), Needs assessment: Trends and a view toward the future. New Directions for Evaluation, 144, 19–31.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Needs Assessment (NA) TIG Week with our colleagues in the Needs Assessment Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our NA TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

1 thought on “NA TIG Week: Ryan Watkins Words Matter: As is the case with needs”

  1. Excellent post Mr. Watkins. I feel that in today’s society or culture many people have a tendency to place their wants above their needs. For the most part there are four basic needs;
    1. A place to call home/shelter
    2. Food and water
    3. Healthcare/hygiene
    4. Clothing
    However, it is easy for a person in this materialistic time of the have and have nots to easily turn their needs into wants. For example, a person does need a home, but a person does not need a mansion; a person needs clothing, but does not need the newest pair of LeBron James (shoes) that just hit the shelves. A person should try to fulfill their wants if that is what makes them happy, but not at the cost of their needs.
    Again excellent post Mr. Watkins

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