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3.3.1 Needs Assessment



Needs assessment is an activity accomplished early in system development to ensure that the system meets the most important needs of the project’s stakeholders. The goal is to ensure that their needs are well understood before starting development. In many cases, there will be more needs than can be met, even conflicting needs. So, prioritization is necessary.


This figure illustrates the needs assessment process. The key is to involve the stakeholders. Collect needs from a variety of sources. Make sure the needs are well understood. Balance and prioritize the needs, and document the rationale. This process is done at the beginning of the project and revisited throughout the development. This ensures the project meets the most critical stakeholder’s requirements.



Shows the flow for Phase [0] Task 1, Needs Assessment.  Summaries are described for inputs, constraints, and enablers into the task;  activities of the task; and outputs from the task.  The flow is described in detail in the accompanying text.



Project Goals and Objectives are the major drivers for defining the needs. This is an output of the planning process [3.2.1].

Previous studies, including feasibility studies and strategic plans, are good sources for documented needs.


Agency policies and procedures will constrain the process to meet its legal, risk, and institutional obligations.


Stakeholder involvement is essential to defining valid and meaningful needs.

Technical reviews are an effective means to get stakeholder feedback about the needs being collected.

Elicitation uses various techniques to elicit, clarify, and prioritize needs.

Trade studies provide an analytical basis for the prioritization of needs.


Key needs and constraints the list of collected needs, their sources, and documentation of the rationale for the selection of the key needs and any constraints which exist that may limit possible solutions to the needs. This may be a separate document, or incorporated as part of the Concept of Operations.

Process Activities:

Identify stakeholders

Identify the stakeholders who will own, operate, maintain, use, interface with, benefit from or otherwise be affected by the system.

Elicit needs

Needs assessment must set aside any preconceived notions of what the system will do. It then elicits the stakeholders’ needs, desires, and constraints by various means, as described in 3.8.2. Some of the techniques are literature search, day-in-the-life studies, surveys, one-on-one interviews, and workshops.

Document needs

Consolidate the results of the elicitation process into a document. If there are many stakeholders it may be helpful to summarize the results, e.g., 75% of the local agencies cited a need for real-time freeway speed data. It is important to include all constraints, such as the restrictions on data sharing.

Validate needs

Present the consolidated results to the stakeholders. This is best done in a workshop where the stakeholders are encouraged to give feedback and have discussions. Continue the discussions until they agree all of their needs have been captured.

Prioritize needs

Generally, all of the needs cannot be met and, sometimes, may be conflicting. Analysis of the needs identifies the highest priority needs on which to focus. This may be done by a priorities analysis, surveys, or consensus.

Perform gap analysis

Inventory current systems that may contribute to fulfilling the identified needs. Rank each need in terms of both the breadth [e.g., 70% of the freeways currently collect speed data] and depth [criticality] of the gap between current and desired capabilities.

Compare costs

Estimate the cost to meet each of the needs. Qualitative estimates may be sufficient, such as high/medium/low, or easy/moderate/difficult to implement.

Validate key needs

Taking into account the priorities [gaps and costs], identify the most pressing needs. Document them and the rationale behind them. Present these conclusions to the stakeholders for discussion and concurrence. Modify key needs as warranted. Update the documentation.

Illustrates when the Needs are assessed, refined, and reassessed in the Vee Development Model. The Regional Needs Assessment takes place in the Regional Architecture section of the Vee Development Model.  The Project Needs Assessment takes place in the Concept Exploration section.  The Needs are expanded, clarified, and refined in the Concept of Operations and System Requirements sections. The Needs are reassessed during the Changes and Upgrades section.

Where does the Needs Assessment take place in the project timeline?

Is there a policy or standard for Needs Assessment?

FHWA Final Rule does not specifically mention general Need Assessment practices to be followed. However, gathering and assessing needs is an essential part of developing a set of valid requirements, which is required by the FHWA Final Rule.

Which activities are critical for the system’s owner to do?

  • Provide the initial statement of needs.
  • Provide data and information on current system capabilities relative to the needs.
  • Supply any existing documentation of needs.
  • Identify the stakeholders and encourage their inputs.
  • Participate in any interviews, surveys, workshops, or other activities developed for the identification, clarification, and prioritization of needs.
  • Review statements of needs.

How do I fit these activities to my project? [Tailoring]

These activities are especially important when there are multiple agencies involved, especially if they have different priorities or have not worked together previously. In that case, it is essential to get documented agreements on the direction in order to prevent future contention. The larger the number of agencies involved, the more risk there is for conflicting needs and incompatible operations. Hence, the amount of effort expended on needs assessment and prioritization should grow with the number of agencies. On the other hand, a single agency project based on well-defined and limited needs may not need to do extensive prioritizing of user needs. A one-page needs statement may be sufficient. This is the case for many small projects, such as a signal system projects.

What should I track in this process step to reduce project risks and get what is expected? [Metrics]

On the technical side:

  • Level of disagreement among stakeholders on high priority needs, since it risks producing a system whose purpose is unfocused and satisfies no one
  • Percentage of the important needs that cannot be met within the budget, since such needs may motivate scope creep
  • Number of expressed needs that are in conflict, since they must be resolved before proceeding

On the project management side:

  • Number of stakeholders whose needs have been captured
  • Number of stakeholders who agree with the final selection of key needs

Checklist: Are all the bases covered?

check Have all relevant stakeholders been represented?
check Have all appropriate resources been utilized to elicit needs?
check Have all collected needs and conclusions been reviewed with the stakeholders?
check Is there an objective and justifiable approach for prioritizing needs?
check Are conclusions and rationale well documented?
check Have all stakeholders agreed that their needs are clearly and fairly represented?


Are there any recommendations that can help?

Recommendation.Getting the needs right up front prevents expensive backtracking later on, when changes are much more expensive.

There are professional facilitators who can come in to encourage people to work together and to explore new ideas. This might be helpful if there are multiple agencies involved in a project with conflicting needs. There are also techniques that help to draw out, organize, and analyze needs.

Tip.Be sure to capture the constraints as well as the needs. A constraint for a single stakeholder, such as the maximum height of maintenance’s bucket trucks, will impact the system for all. State policy needs to be considered here. For example, if it prohibits installing private utility lines longitudinally in freeway right-of-way, that will constrain the possible approaches. Be sure the constraints flow into the requirements.

A closer look at Prioritizing needs

Prioritizing needs early is important to prevent making hard decisions later on when it is discovered that not all of the needs can be met within the budget and schedule. When various stakeholder's have their own favorites there must be a sensitivity to this and a balance must be reached if these favorites conflict. One way to do this is through an objective priority analysis and defined consensus process. This will ensure that all stakeholder needs are given fair consideration. The following techniques can be used to support prioritizing of user needs:

  • to draw needs out of previous project documents and prioritize them with concurrence of the stakeholders
  • conduct a workshop in which stakeholders review and rank candidate needs
  • use surveys
  • define a decision process [e.g., multi-voting, majority, and negotiation]

These techniques are discussed in the Trade Studies chapter [Ch. 3.9.9], under the heading, “Making qualitative measures quantitative.”

Once the needs have been identified, the gap between current capabilities and the needs are determined. This gap analysis technique makes qualitative judgments numerical, so that they can be compared. Projects are seldom built as a completely stand-alone system, but rely and are built upon legacy systems.

The first step in the process is to determine how far the current capabilities are from meeting the needs because of insufficient functionality, capabilities, performance, or capacity. This is the “depth” of the gap. It may be qualitatively assessed on a scale of 0 [the need is completely met] to 10 [there is no capability currently].

The next step is to determine whether the need is met in some places and not others. This often happens when developing a regional system by integrating local systems. For example, in one study; it was found that 70% of the freeway lane miles were instrumented to collect traffic speeds, leaving a 30% geographic gap. This is called the “breadth” of the gap, and is measured as the percentage not covered. The third step multiplies these two metrics yielding a unit-less metric, which is an indication of how severe the gap is for each need.

Comparing costs is difficult to do at this point, since there is not even a conceptual design. In fact, any cost estimates completed this early will rely on assumptions that will certainly change as the project takes form. Consider the cost of meeting each of the needs relative to the cost of other needs as the needs are prioritized. Many moderately high priority needs might be addressed instead of one that may be overly ambitious.

A gap analysis can be done using various metrics. The following example is a gap analysis that can be done to find out the gap between a current and future system capabilities:

1) current functionality and future functionality (gap in functionality)

2) life cycle cost of operating the existing system, and the implementation and life cycle cost of a new and improved system. (gap in cost and functionality of an existing system vs. a new and improved system)

3) The value of implementing a specific sequence of ITS elements. (This is the gap in the value of implementing one function compared to other functions.)

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Page last modified on September 20, 2016
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