Applied Empathy: A Design Framework for Meeting Human Needs and Desires


A space for seeing the world in a different way

A column by Dirk Knemeyer
December 4, 2006

Part Two: Dimensions, Needs, and Desires

Part One of this series introduced a design framework for meeting human needs and desires and defined five States of Being that represent the different degrees to which products and experiences affect and motivate people in their lives. This second part explains three Dimensions of Human Behavior, as well as specific needs and desires for which we can intentionally design products. The third and final part of this series will explore the relationships between different human needs and desires, talk about how designers can put this framework to use, and share some examples that will hopefully help make this approach of practical value to you.

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The Three Dimensions of Human Behavior

Typically, we design products for a specific end state. For example, someone has an idea that a large beanbag can function as a chair. Or someone imagines how improving a paperless payment system can work more effectively than a manual system that is currently in use. Or customer feedback leads to the optimization of a Web site workflow that helps people complete their tasks more quickly. But in each of these examples, the focus is on things other than the essence of the actual people who will use the products—whether that focus is on the application of a particular material, on using technology to make a process easier, or responding to customers’ feedback to keep them satisfied. As I previously described in Part One of this series, the intentional attempt to satisfy people’s internal needs and desires simply isn’t there.

While the five States of Being are vital to understanding the depth and potential of customer engagement, at an even more basic level, we must attune ourselves to the three Dimensions of Human Behavior:

  • Analytical—related to the mind
  • Emotional—related to feelings and/or spirituality
  • Physical—related to the body

Everyone has needs and desires in all three of these dimensions, but each of us differs in our experience, preference, and proportion of these dimensions. For example, hard-core gamers are often more comfortable with and drawn to meeting their analytical needs and desires, whereas people who enjoy extreme sports typically prefer taking care of their physical needs and desires. Meanwhile, people who are involved in a lot of community groups and organizations are usually more attuned to their emotional needs and desires. In any case, all of us have needs and desires in all three of these dimensions.

While, in our personal lives, we might have the luxury of planning and making decisions that we target very carefully to the idiosyncratic preferences of people that we know—for example, planning more physical activities for one person while crafting a more emotional gift for another—business and design contexts rarely afford us this luxury. We need to stay true to the core of what it is we are designing and/or its possible contexts of use, while at the same time being mindful of all three dimensions of human behavior.

Consider that, in a vast majority of cases, there already exists a vision of what we need to design. This means there are relatively limited opportunities for us to affect the overall constitution of what we are creating or to stretch in different directions. For example, if you were designing a mountain bike for extremely physical use and contexts, while you might find creative and innovate ways of expanding the vision—such as incorporating compatibility with a portable digital device that lets riders access the Internet, thereby stimulating customers’ analytical needs and desires—business and marketing constraints like manufacturing costs or a maximum list price often limit such possibilities.

Still, as designers, even if we are in a position where our ability to deviate from the core of a clearly articulated product vision is limited, we must remain aware of and actively think about all three dimensions of human needs and desires. Rather than simply considering a product and how customers will use it, be conscious of the fact that people ultimately need each of their analytical, emotional, and physical needs met. Is there any way you can stretch the product vision in a way that effectively meets additional dimensions without compromising or unnecessarily muddying the essential purpose of the product? Asking these sorts of questions and focusing on the things that make people who they are creates valuable opportunities for designing products that are truly innovative and have the potential to be far more effective for both your company and your customers.

Another aspect to consider is how different each of these three dimensions is from the standpoint of its impact on experience design. For instance, playing analytically rewarding games is often marked by concentration over a long period of time and the ability to make progress in comparison to your past performance or the performance of others or against a game’s built-in structure, as when filling in the squares in a crossword puzzle. Such activities are more likely to be solitary as opposed to social in nature, and they lend themselves to daily, routine, or otherwise repetitive behavior. Understanding these characteristics is extremely valuable. If your product planning is outcome based and your goal is to become part of customers’ daily lives, tapping into analytically based needs and desires can be extremely powerful.

Emotionally rewarding activities are either social or introspective in nature. Rather than focusing on tasks or accomplishing specific goals, such activities focus on communication, personal expression, and internal exploration. Activities that have an emotional basis are more likely to be memorable and enduring than other activities and tend to result in stronger and/or ongoing relationships between participants. The most meaningful outcomes for most people also tend to involve getting their emotional needs and desires met, regardless of their typical preferences.

Physically rewarding activities also tend to be social, but in most cases, can be solitary as well. They tend to be extremely intense, often occurring in a very compressed time when compared to analytical and emotional activities. In popular culture today in the United States, the physical is often glorified—particularly in youth culture and most notably in the highly sexualized nature of entertainment content. Other than in software, physical needs and desires are the easiest for designers to meet, given the tactile nature of all interactions that people have with physical products. Even in cases where a product or experience is heavily geared toward the analytical or emotional, designers can take advantage of tactile interactions in an attempt to stimulate or even bring pleasure to users.

Analytical, emotional, and physical dimensions: People ultimately require and respond to each of these. If we are cognizant of this and actively consider all three when planning our products, marketing, and experiences, we are much more likely to enjoy design success. These three dimensions are also notable for being an important component of mapping out explicit human needs and desires.

Explicit Human Needs and Desires

Understanding the five States of Being and three Dimensions of Human Behavior is important, but when it comes time to actually design, we need to look at the specific needs and desires that people have. This becomes a messy process, because there are literally hundreds of needs and desires for which we could reasonably argue. Unlike the previous parts of this framework, we cannot neatly and definitively package needs and desires together. I’ll introduce a number of them now and suggest an explicit structure for you to use as a starting point, but there isn’t just one model for grouping needs and desires. And as this is a nascent framework, there aren’t definitive right or wrong answers. Indeed, the fact that we all have our own unique filters—including cultures, backgrounds, experiences, biases, preferences, and prejudices—complicates the entire process. So how we understand and articulate our needs and desires is going to be somewhat different. While I’ve put quite a bit of time into fleshing out the needs and desires I’m going to share here, I intend them as a starting point as opposed to a destination. You can either use them as they are or iterate and improve upon them.

In order to better understand and organize human needs and desires—and particularly to realize their interrelationships with one another—we need to apply the five States of Being and the three Dimensions of Human Behavior. By juxtaposing these—with the States of Being representing a hierarchy of increasing importance and influence and the Dimensions of Human Behavior representing three equal, different, and complementary elements—the application and impact of specific needs and desires become apparent. The interrelationships between different needs and desires is also extremely important, but that is very difficult to communicate in text, so I’ve created a visualization of this entire framework to accompany this written explanation, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1—Five levels of human needs and desires
5 levels of human needs and desires

Designing for the Five Levels of Human Needs & DesiresPDF

Note—I recommend that you download and print out the PDF version of this visualization, so you can view it while reading this part of the article. It communicates the relationships between needs and desires and also can assist you in planning to design for them.

Figures 2–4 show closeups of the analytical, emotional, and physical needs and desires, respectively.

Figure 2—Analytical needs and desires
Analytical needs and desires
Figure 3—Emotional needs and desires
Emotional needs and desires
Figure 4—Physical needs and desires
Physical needs and desires

Also, while I have categorized each of these human needs and desires into one of the three specific Dimensions of Human Behavior, please note that, in some cases, one could make valid arguments for their belonging in different dimensions from those in which I have placed them. And that is alright. These dimensions are guidelines that help us to better understand the people for whom we’re designing. I’ve restricted each need and desire to only one of the dimensions to make the framework more straightforward and assist in my presenting a visualization that people can quickly understand. However, we need not limit needs and desires to these categorizations, which are merely a device to help improve their understandability. On that note, here are the human needs and desires that I propose for this framework.

Participation-Level Needs and Desires

These are the most basic of needs and desires, which we routinely meet in various day-to-day contexts.


  • Contest—wanting a context that allows completion of a goal or winning and losing
  • Attention—wanting something to focus on and spend time with
  • Amusement—wanting to laugh or experience something that amuses us


  • Recognition—wanting others to acknowledge us
  • Congruence—wanting to feel in harmony with our surroundings
  • Control—wanting to have self-determination


  • Recreation—wanting to exert energy
  • Attraction—wanting to have desire
  • Stimulation—wanting physical feelings

Engagement-Level Needs and Desires

These are common needs and desires, but unsuccessful experiences often leave them unmet.


  • Challenge—wanting a contest that requires effort to succeed
  • Determination—wanting to exert influence over an outcome
  • Interest—wanting an activity to pique our interest


  • Validation—wanting others to acknowledge us for who we are
  • Acceptance—wanting others to embrace us for who we are
  • Trust—wanting to believe and be believed


  • Exertion—wanting to be stretched
  • Pleasure—wanting to experience positive sensations
  • Comfort—wanting physical stability and passive pleasure

Productivity-Level Needs and Desires

These needs and desires are essential to a good quality of life.


  • Progress—wanting to achieve something in a recognized and meaningful way
  • Understanding—wanting mental control or realization of our context


  • Expression—wanting to expand and share ourselves
  • Safety—wanting to feel insulated and secure


  • Fitness—wanting to be physically healthy
  • Affection—wanting physical interaction that has emotional undertones

Happiness-Level Needs and Desires

These needs and desires are important, but are not typically met in day-to-day life.


Knowledge—wanting to become smarter and more capable


Belonging—wanting to be established in a family, group, or community


Passion—wanting a deep, physical connection that is infused with emotion

Well-Being-Level Needs and Desires

The most powerful needs and desires are those that give us a sense of well-being, which are shown in Figure 5. However, these are only infrequently met in ordinary lives.

  • Satiation—wanting to have enough of something good
  • Meaning—wanting something that matters, is beyond ourselves, and is not ephemeral
  • Growth—wanting to become more than we were before
  • Health—wanting to enjoy holistic stability and vitality
  • Joy—wanting to experience deeply positive feelings
  • Ecstasy—wanting to experience extreme sensations
  • Fulfillment—wanting the complete and holistic balance that we feel when many of our needs and desires are met
Figure 5—Well-being level needs and desires
Well-being level needs and desires


I know I am mapping pretty new territory here, and the way all of this fits together may initially seem complicated. Again, the third and final installment of this series will explore the relationships between different human needs and desires, talk about how you can put this framework to use, and share some practical examples that will hopefully clarify the entire picture. 

This series comprises three parts:


Founder and CEO of Involution Studios LLC

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Dirk KnemeyerSince 2004, Dirk has led Involution Studios, a software design consultancy whose clients include Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, McAfee, and Yahoo! Dirk’s leadership contributions to the business and design community are prolific. He has authored more than 100 articles, delivered more than 50 speeches and presentation around the world, and participated on 10 Boards of Directors for corporations and non-profit organizations, including the International Institute for Information Design (IIID), American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Center for Brand Experience, and User Experience Network (UXnet). Prior to founding Involution, Dirk was Chief Design Officer at Thread Inc. His diverse professional background also includes time as a management consultant, specializing in change management; an advertising executive, leading brand strategy and marketing for international corporations; and a design director. His work has won myriad awards for creative excellence, crossing various media, including the Web, television, print, and multimedia. Dirk earned a Master of Arts from the prestigious Popular Culture program at Bowling Green.  Read More

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