What are user needs and why should I care?

By Amalie Nash


Denver, Colorado, United States


I’ve become a big fan of the user needs framework for both its simplicity and its ability to hone in on meaningful insights. 

Analytics are important, of course. We need to understand what stories and topics are generating subscription conversions, pageviews, engagement, and more. But data from our existing sources doesn’t tell us much about what the reader actually wanted, whether the story met their needs, or how to think about our content mix more holistically.  

By combining the user needs framework with our data, we’re able to better understand our audiences and how needs and emotions fit into our understanding of how journalism serves our readers.

User needs came up repeatedly on the big stage at INMA’s World Congress of News Media in April, and I was excited to host a Webinar on the topic just days later. 

The concept of user needs was first introduced in 2016 by the BBC World Service after researching the needs of its audience. From that research came six reasons people typically consume news, which were crafted into these user needs:

  • Update me.

  • Keep me on trend.

  • Give me perspective.

  • Educate me.

  • Divert me.

  • Inspire me.

Importantly, these needs speak to what people are trying to get when they visit your platforms; they’re designed to bring your journalism closer to its audiences. Other media companies soon adopted the model, but it didn’t become commonplace across the industry then. 

However, user needs appear to be making a resurgence in recent months after being reintroduced in 2023 by Dmitry Shishkin, a former BBC journalist and advocate of the model, and smartocto, which offers publishers a user needs tool. The update adds two new user needs and includes a guide on how to write articles that address specific user needs.

The model suggests four essential drivers that lead to the user needs:

  1. Fact driven: Inform your audience. This is the one journalists often think of when it comes to their content strategy and often over-indexes in analyses of user needs.

  1. Context driven: Explain to your audience. I believe this one is important to combat news fatigue, as well. This suggests readers want more context and explainers, which also is what readers who are turned off by the news say they want.

  1. Emotion driven: Move your audience. People are often emotionally attached to news that affect their lives, yet we do a poor job of providing that connective tissue and evoking emotions through our storytelling on a daily basis.

  1. Action driven: Motivate your audience. Here’s another motivation important to addressing news avoidance: People want to understand solutions and be given agency. This type of journalism connects people to people, ideas, or concrete events.

Recent iterations of the user needs model have eight needs derived from those four drivers — update me, educate me, give me perspective, divert me, inspire me, help me, connect me, and keep me engaged — but many newsrooms have adapted and slimmed that model based on their missions and audiences. 

I’ve talked to a number of news companies using the model, and in every case, it’s led to meaningful insights and changes to their content strategies. And in every case, the results have shown improvement and a deeper understanding of audience.

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About Amalie Nash

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