The Art of Relevance: Wants and Needs

You may have noticed that I have framed relevance strictly from the perspective of what the participant/community wants. Where they want to go. What they want to do. What they think matters.

This is intentional. It’s not about you. It’s not about what you think people need or want or deserve. It’s about them — their values, their priorities.

In 2007, I sat on a panel at the National Academies of Science about the future of museums and libraries. I was the youngest person there, cowed by leaders and experts in the room. I’ll never forget a distinguished CEO, banging his fist on the table and saying, “Our job is not to give people what they want but what they need.”

I was too nervous to say anything at the time, but the phrase stuck like a thorn in my brain  stem. The thorn jammed in a little further each time I heard it, dozens of times over the years, in meetings and conferences and brainstorming sessions.

The phrase drives me nuts. It smacks of paternalism. As if it weren’t enough to be the experts on our subject matter. Now we’re the experts on what people “need” too?

I don’t think we can tell the difference between what people want and what they need…

… Does this mean we shouldn’t care about what people want and need? Of course not. We should care deeply about these things. We should do whatever we can to discover more about peoples’ desires, goals, needs, and values. But learning about someone’s needs and prescribing those needs are completely different.

In my experience, the institutionally-articulated “needs” of audiences often look suspiciously like the “wants” of the professions speaking. Professionals want silence in the auditorium, so they say “people need respite from their busy lives.” Priests want parishioners to accept the canon as presented, so they say, “people need strong spiritual guidance.” Teachers want students to listen attentively, so they say “kinds need to learn this.”

When I ask the phrase “don’t give people what they want, give them what they need” means, I am often told that we should not be pandering to people’s expressed desires but presenting them with experiences that challenge them and open up new ways of seeing the world.

I agree. It is incredibly valuable for cultural institutions to present experiences that might be surprising, unexpected, or outside participants’ comfort zones. But I don’t typically hear this phrase deployed to argue in favor of a risky program format or an unusual piece of content. I don’t hear this phrase accompanied by evidence-based articulation of “needs” of audiences. Instead, I hear this phrase used to defend traditional formats and content in the face of change. I hear “don’t give people what they want, give them what I want.”

Simon, Nina. The Art of Relevance. Santa Cruz, Calif: Museum 2.0, 2016.