User needs

Last updated January 11, 2021

How to develop user needs and why they are important to your content.

What are user needs?

“User needs” express people’s goals, values and aspirations. They are what students, faculty, staff or UW Madison partners need from your content in order to perform a task.

Design every part of your content to meet such needs.

Defining user needs help us create content to help them do what they need to.

Defining user needs

You should be able to prove that a user need exists. Find out how to gather the evidence you need.

Define the user

Do not begin the user need with “as a user.”  You should know who the user is, and define them in relationship to what they’re trying to do.

A user does not have to be just one person. It can mean a broad group of people, if their relationship to the need is the same.

Other user groups can be more vague, but are still defined as more than just a “user.” A user may be a:

  • Student
  • UW employee
  • Faculty member
  • Vendor who works with the UW
  • Teaching assistant
  • Researcher at UW

Writing user needs

It’s a simple concept, but is sometimes a bit harder to put into practice.

This is an accordion element with a series of buttons that open and close related content panels.

Follow this template:

  • As a… [who is the user?]
  • I need to… [what does the user want to do?]
  • So that… [why does the user want to do this?]

Write them from the user’s perspective and in language that a user would recognize and use themselves.

Good example:

  • As a student
  • I need to talk to my advisor
  • So that I can figure out what classes I need to graduate on time

This is a valid user need because it does not suggest a specific solution.

Bad example:

  • As a UW employee
  • I need a table comparison of video conference tools
  • So I am informed

This is not a valid user need because it creates a ‘need’ to justify existing content, and suggests a specific solution that may or may not be right.

Go deeper on how to develop user stories.

What the user wants to do

User needs should be based on actions or tasks.

This is an accordion element with a series of buttons that open and close related content panels.

Active user needs are discrete, specific actions like

  • Applying
  • Registering
  • Paying
  • Submitting (information)
  • Sending
  • Logging in
  • Claiming
  • Requesting
  • Downloading

Avoid general, vague actions

  • Understand
  • Know
  • Be aware of
  • Using (as in a tool or service)


You should only use “understand,” or “be aware of” if the user needs to know it to fulfill a certain task, like understand how a syllabus works, or how to be in compliance with a policy.

Need help?

The Center for User Experience can help with a design strategy and design research.