Needs Assessments and Formative Research

Before designing a health program or intervention, you first have to understand the health problems that your intended audiences are facing and the key factors that contribute to these problems. Formative research—that is, research conducted before a program or activity is designed and implemented—can help identify answers to these questions. This type of research is also referred to as needs assessment.

Formative research focuses on describing the current situation. A needs assessment explicitly identifies gaps between the current and ideal situations. The terms are sometimes used synonymously, with “formative research” more common in the scientific and epidemiology fields and “needs assessment” more common among program planners.

Formative research and needs assessment can help you:

The needs assessment can serve as a baseline snapshot of the current status of a health problem, which you can then use as a means to compare the effect of a program’s activities at a later date. Needs assessments should be conducted with involvement from administrative and community leaders, program planners, service delivery personnel and program beneficiaries. When conducted collaboratively, the needs assessment can help all stakeholders—including members of the intended audience—agree on the priorities of the health program and how resources should be allocated. Needs assessments can also foster cross-sector partnerships that promote creative and effective interventions.

A variety of data sources can be used to identify the health problem, such as surveillance data, key informant interviews or field observations.

Alongside a needs assessment, you may also consider conducting a situation analysis—an assessment of the state of the context in which your organization or other relevant entity is operating. This analysis helps identify internal or external forces and trends that may help or hinder your performance and inform choices of alternative strategies. These forces and trends can be biophysical/ecological (for example, limited availability of clean water), socioeconomic (high unemployment) or policy/institutional (staffing patterns at health centers). If your focus is on external factors, you can use the common acronym PEST (or STEP) to frame the analysis:



Social issues


Variations include STEEP (with the added Environmental/Ecological issues) and PESTLE (addition of Legislative issues).

Another planning tool often used in situation analysis is SWOT analysis. Using SWOT, the organization examines its current and future Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Organizations often compare themselves to other organizations working in the same field during this review process.

  • decide which health problems to focus on—both in terms of what audiences perceive to be priorities and which problems can feasibly be resolved within a certain timeframe and budget
  • determine the cultural, environmental and political factors that contribute to health problems
  • explore past interventions, literature reviews, meta-analyses and reports on best practices to identify lessons learned; to understand successes, challenges and failures to avoid repeating the same mistakes
  • identify new or innovative intervention strategies

Read more: What interventions can work?