A needs assessment is a systematic investigation of audiences and issues. A successful needs assessment should identify the appropriate nature and content of future products, programs, and projects. A needs assessment provides information to help managers make the correct choices to create a desired or demanded change.
The term "needs assessment" has become strongly associated with education and instructional design. However, the same basic process is used to determine customer needs and wants for products and services. In business, the term used is "market research," with the target market for a product or service equivalent to the target audience for a class or other training. Needs analysis, market research, market analysis, and needs assessment are terms used somewhat interchangeably to describe this process. The goal of a needs assessment is to design an effective program, product, or service that addresses a group's needs and wants. Too often, people consider only one solution (a want) and discuss it as a need, when in truth what they really need will not be addressed. Effective questioning can reveal the need behind the want. However, it is important to remember that the "want" is often the best solution. Two things to remember:
Needs are gaps - the space between what currently exists and what should exist.
Wants are solutions - a proposed means to filling the gap.
There are twelve steps to performing a needs assessment, though not all steps are required in every instance. The complete list is outlined below:
- Confirm the Issues and Audience
- Establish the Planning Team
- Establish the Goals and Objectives
- Characterize Your Audience
- Conduct Information and Literature Search
- Select Your Data Collection Methods
- Determine Your Sampling Scheme
- Design and Pilot the Collection Instrument
- Gather and Report Data
- Analyze Data
- Manage Data
- Synthesize Data and Create Report
The needs assessment process described to this point is a thorough, comprehensive methodology that requires planning and specialized expertise, as well as rigorous analysis in both the development and data analysis phases. This takes both time and money that may not always be available or practical in every extension and education project. Sometimes managers know their audience well enough to skip the audience characterization step. For planning purposes, simple quantification of the data may be sufficient, and rigorous statistical analyses can be omitted. Although it may not always be practical to conduct every step of the needs assessment at a level that can result in publishable research-quality results, it is important that you know the risks associated with skipping, or abbreviating, any part of the needs assessment process.
The needs assessment process provides a strong foundational basis on which to initiate new projects
Offers insight on specific knowledge, skills, attitudes, or behaviors that need to change
Can determine what is required to satisfy audience needs
Reveals the strategies, tools, and delivery methods that are best suited for use with specific audiences
Needs assessments can be customized to meet specific issues
Allows the researcher to conduct an evaluation before expending resources on specific project actions
Application of results can help project leaders understand, verify, or increase the impact of products or services
Quality of results may decline with the modification or omission of one or more of the steps of the needs assessment process
Often difficult to distinguish between wants and needs
Can be an expensive, time-consuming process
Specialized expertise is often required for tasks such as sampling, data collection, and analysis
Properly conducting a needs assessment often requires assistance from skilled experts in the social science field to ensure proper development of data collection instruments, sampling, data management and analysis, and reporting.
Related Tools and Methods
Please contact NOAA's Office for Coastal Management Training and Engagement Program for technical assistance in performing a needs assessment or to identify those with expertise in your area.
Needs Assessment Guide developed by the NOAA's Office for Coastal Management, this on-line guide introduces natural resource management professionals to needs assessments and what it means to conduct one. Needs assessments are critical to developing relevant and effective products and services, including training development. By assessing target audience needs, one can determine a focus and direction for environmental programming, tools, and services.