So, let’s step back for a minute and think about the problem of user-centered design from a different perspective. Typically, we boil users’ needs and desires down to only those that are most obvious and complementary to the company, product, brand, or communication we are designing. This is especially true for product design, where we often translate needs and desires into issues of usability: “They want it to be quick and simple!” “They want it to look good!” But these product goals have little to do with the real needs and desires of actual users. In advertising design, the messages and positioning in communications at least attempt to appeal to higher-order needs and desires—for example, Just Do It, Impossible Is Nothing, Dream Big—albeit often as a mechanism of simply selling product as opposed to really connecting in more holistic ways.
Interestingly, for the most part, the companies that do the best job of appealing to real needs and desires are those whose products are most closely aligned with our health and personal appearance. Consider Aveda, whose mission statement is: “To care for the world we live in, from the products we make to the ways in which we give back to society. … We strive to set an example for environmental leadership and responsibility—not just in the world of beauty, but around the world.” Aveda extends this mission to the way their brand experience manifests in the marketplace, with a consistent focus on the overall well-being of both their customers and the overall environment. Indeed, the Aveda strategy manages to deliver an improved lifestyle to customers through their products and services, while their business and operational model addresses green issues that further satisfy their clientele’s desire for a more eco-friendly world.
Of course, not all companies and products have it as easy as Aveda does. In the personal health and wellness industry, Aveda delivers packaged products and services that are high touch and intimately important to their customers’ daily personal lives. But engaging people at a deep and meaningful level does not necessarily require a core business charter and strategy like that of Aveda. We can engage customers through very thoughtful and intentional design that deeply considers the needs and desires of people—independently of the business and strategic goals that usually define the products we design. By approaching our problem-solving from a user-centered perspective and dovetailing that viewpoint with the more traditional, task-focused design approaches we typically employ, we can achieve and enjoy a resonant advantage over our competitors in the marketplace.
Applying Empathy to Design
I want to introduce you to a framework I’ve created for considering and planning design around real human needs and desires. My fundamental approach considers the people for whom I’m designing a product through three axes:
- five levels of increasingly important States of Being
- three core areas of Human Activity
- a variety of specific, clearly articulated Needs and Desires
Let’s look at each of these three axes independently, then synthesize them and examine how they can work together.
The Five States of Being
You may be familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which is usually represented as a pyramid, showing five levels of needs from bottom to top: physiological, safety, love/belonging, status, and actualization.
Maslow’s concept is that people aren’t motivated by higher-level needs until their lower-level needs have been met. So, he has conceptually defined all human needs and placed them along a hierarchical and progressive continuum that requires someone’s needs to be fulfilled at one level before the next level of needs becomes important.
While I’ve loosely modeled the five States of Being in my framework after Maslow’s approach, they are in reality quite different. Rather than tying human needs to concrete and finite outcomes—for example, physiological needs, which because of their physical nature enjoy a somewhat quantifiable definition—my five States of Being reflect the increasing relationship between the power and importance of needs at each level and the degree of personal commitment and desire each level engenders toward a product or user experience. That is to say, even those who have not yet realized their lowest-level needs can identify the value and impact of, as well as tacitly desire, the highest-level states of being. Additionally, while Maslow’s classifications are for academic use and understanding, mine are inextricably tied to actual design outcomes and related human behaviors.
My five States of Being—from the easiest to achieve and least powerful to the most difficult to achieve and most powerful—are:
Perhaps the most essential human need beyond our physiological needs is the urge to be part of something greater than oneself. We intuitively understand this from our own experiences—for example, the feeling of flow that exists when you’re part of a really good, healthy team—whether a product development team, a sports team, or a social group. The popular culture we choose to consume reinforces this phenomenon. As recently as eight years ago, the top-ten highest grossing movies of all time—the Star Wars movies, E.T., Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, The Lion King, Independence Day—shared the primary story arc of a group of people banding together to overcome seemingly impossible odds. People want to participate in things that are beyond themselves and naturally identify with artifacts or situations that create such a connection.
Creating a sense of participation in customers is the baseline for any product or brand. People aren’t going to take an interest in or pay attention to what you’re offering if they don’t feel some basic degree of connection, whether that is simply functional or promises something deeper. The desire for participation arises from issues ranging from functionality—such as identifying a benefit or a personal context of use—to usability—interacting in a productive or enjoyable way—to desirability—the perception of sexiness or some other positive association with a product.