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
September 25, 2006

The design community keeps making a lot of noise about designing for people/users/customers. However, while this notion is well intentioned and even conceptually correct, I find much of it boils down to empty rhetoric. What exactly are we doing? More user research? More usability testing? Certainly these are valid approaches to finding out about people’s needs, but they’re only a small part of an optimal solution. Are we using hollow tasks and tools like personas and scenarios? Those approaches typically take design farther away from the people for whom we are designing products rather than closer. How about focusing on usability and the user experience? That gets at only part of the issue and tends to come from the perspective of the product—as opposed to the more universal needs and desires of actual people.

No. The methods most UX professionals typically use today are, at best, incomplete and, at worst, without any meaningful focus. There is not a successful, established approach and framework for closely linking the real-world needs and desires of our potential customers into the DNA of product strategy and development. Sure, there are various examples of the integration of users’ needs and product strategy being successfully accomplished in some cases, but they are more the outcome of clear vision and talented design than an intentional, strategic product architecture that really accommodates people’s needs.

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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:

  • Participation
  • Engagement
  • Productivity
  • Happiness
  • Well-Being


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.


It’s one thing for people to participate; it’s quite another for them to be truly engaged. To illustrate the difference, let me give you a personal example. My sons, 12 and 10 years old, are video game mavens. They play video games every chance they get. As a loving father, I try to connect with them by playing the games with them. My oldest really enjoys professional wrestling video games, and when he asks, I participate by playing along with interest and enthusiasm. But I really wouldn’t choose to play the game—full of fighting and mayhem—if he didn’t want to. My youngest really enjoys a game called Brain Age™—a structured set of puzzles and tests that, by design, give the brain an ongoing workout. I must confess, I’m completely engaged by this game. In fact, I ask him if we can play it, and I look forward to doing so. Brain Age is not just something that I will do; it is something that I actively want to do. It has successfully engaged me.

Engagement creates a far stronger connection between people, products, and brands. It is the point at which the customer relationship shifts from push to pull—that is, customers want the brand or the product and don’t need advertisements or reminders or specific contexts for use. This is the lowest level of true success that products and brands can attain.


Productivity is that state of being where your engagement with a product reaches a level at which the product actually makes your life better. When a product attains this level, it really begins to transcend the vast majority of products and their associated brands and experiences. Many things that engage us are not actually successful in making us more productive. And while being more productive does include expected task-oriented outcomes such as accomplishing something more efficiently or effectively, it also delves into the softer side of productivity. Things that improve our physical health help make us more productive. Things that help us to move forward intellectually make us more productive. Things that strengthen our psychological well-being or spiritual balance make us more productive. Now, there is certainly a very fuzzy line between engagement and productivity. After all, who is the arbiter for deciding whether something actually enables us to achieve greater productivity or merely attains the level of engagement? The answer: it is the customers themselves who decide what contributes to their productivity.

There is a television program I’ve been watching for some time that most people would dismiss as a colossal waste of time. Yet I am not only engaged by the program, I actually find watching it productive. It helps me to understand cultural norms that I otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to learn about. It uses storytelling to explore relationships and communication in a way that provides examples I can use as straw men against which to evaluate some of my own interactions.

The threshold at which customers achieve the level of productivity is highly personal and specific to each customer. However, that doesn’t prevent us from intentionally designing to enhance productivity. It simply makes it clear that customers are the final arbiters of what does or does not make them productive.


This is the level of satisfaction at which products and brands can become category killers. Happiness is the conscious and specific acknowledgement that a person is in a preferred state. Indeed, here in the United States, our founding fathers included happiness as one of the three fundamental rights of every citizen: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is also the level of being that needs the least explanation. An awareness of and desire for happiness is ubiquitous in our culture. We’ve thought about our happiness and answered questions like “Are you happy?” in virtually every context—from relationships to jobs to leisure activities.

People generally regard themselves as happy when they are in a notably heightened state of positive being. Happiness usually results from a sustained and consistent overall state of enjoyment, not just an ephemeral reaction to fleeting pleasures, victories, or connections. Typically, only the best-executed products and brands are even identifiable contributors to our happiness—let alone the primary reason why we might consider ourselves happy. Yet, connecting with this level of human need and desire has always been the Holy Grail of user experience—regardless of whether we are consciously aware of it.


We are now approaching a period in the human condition when well-being will finally replace happiness as the highest and most desirable state of being. While happiness constitutes a subjective reflection on how we assess our current condition in life, well-being is a more objective and holistic realization of human health. Consider these examples:

  • Smoking cigarettes makes some people happy. For most of them, it is contrary to their physical well-being.
  • Watching television makes some people happy. For many of them, it is detrimental to their intellectual well-being.
  • Viewing pornography makes some people happy. For some of them, it is contrary to their psychological well-being.

To be clear, I am not advocating any specific value judgments here. The point is that, even if something makes you happy, it could, in fact, be bad for you. When you focus on well-being instead of happiness, you make an explicit trade-off between an in-the-moment preference and your longer-term health, deciding to pursue things that are more sustainably and holistically good. Well-being demands a very broad and actively informed look at what will contribute to things like your life expectancy, every possible kind of health—physical, psychological, and intellectual—and deeper, essentially human conceptions such as meaning and fulfillment. These are all things that transcend happiness—even though they often include it. In a world that is becoming increasingly more scientifically advanced, where we can understand both the literal and functional DNA of people better and better, we will both personally and culturally strive for and value well-being. Products, brands, and experiences that help us improve our well-being will become the gold standard and the de facto category winners in most cases. Indeed, the Brain Age video game I talked about earlier is one such product that strives to and seemingly accomplishes the goal of actually increasing the well-being of its users. It is a model for successful products of the future.

One of the strengths of this planning framework is that each of us can identify with and understand these five States of Being and the approximate continuum they span across our own self-awareness and existence. This first-person experience and understanding of the essence of the human condition enables us to naturally and often intuitively make judgments about which State of Being is appropriate or possible for a given product, brand, or experience. Indeed, as part of a product-development road map, awareness of these States of Being can be invaluable in leading us to future decisions and directions that transcend what has heretofore been possible.

Vacuum cleaners provide a simple example of these principles. While vacuum cleaners are seemingly utilitarian products, they actually span the entire continuum of States of Being. Consider the following basic product impacts and how they fit into my framework:

  • Participation—The most basic design for a vacuum cleaner adequately supports some basic cleaning tasks that people must necessarily perform. Almost any vacuum cleaner reaches this level.
  • Engagement—At this level, a vacuum cleaner works or people perceive it in a way that makes them enthusiastic about using that particular product. Most vacuum cleaners are able to achieve this level.
  • Productivity—When a vacuum cleaner works or a person perceives it in such a positive way that the person derives real benefits from using it, it has actually made the person more productive. Here we begin to see some differentiation between products. Some demographic groups appreciate the way high-quality, simple, traditional vacuum cleaners contribute to their productivity, while others require more modern, expensive machines with more features to reach this threshold.
  • Happiness—At this level, either in a vacuum cleaner’s actual use or because of the impact it has on the environment in which it is being used, people perceive that the vacuum cleaner demonstrably makes their lives better. Very few vacuum cleaners attain this level. Dyson vacuum cleaners are the most identifiable and popular products at the moment. Though older, more Spartan machines may certainly fulfill this level for some people—even if more for their longevity, dependability, and personal comfort and associations rather than objective assessments of the relative quality of products in the marketplace.
  • Well-Being—When a vacuum cleaner has a positive, meaningful impact on the life of a person using it or on people living in the environment it affects, it is contributing to this highest state of being. Vacuum cleaners that positively impact people’s well-being may remove more allergens from surfaces or the air or may be more ergonomically designed to reduce stress on the body during use, thus improving people’s physical health and well-being through their use.

We can easily see how products in any product category can contribute to our States of Being—for example, cooking tools that range from the plain and workmanlike, which induce only participation, or those, such as OXO, that were painstakingly designed for ergonomics and aesthetics and help us achieve well-being. Software products for investors range from those that provide the most basic information about our investments to those, such as E*TRADE®, that provide a comprehensive set of tools and services that increase the chances their customers will improve their financial health by making better decisions.

As you can see, ascending through the five levels of being from participation to well-being is a logical and progressive continuum. Assessing the quality of products against these levels of being operates very much as a narrowing process. Almost every product that actually makes it to market qualifies at the level of participation, while only a very small percentage of products attain a level at which they contribute to our happiness and well-being. By considering this continuum before you even begin to get into planning or design, you empower yourself and your team to set goals that will result in breakthrough products and services.

In the second part of this series on applied empathy, I will explore the three areas of human activity, plot a variety of human needs and desires against both our states of being and those areas of human activity, and finally, synthesize all of these ideas into a framework that will empower you to begin seeing the application of design to products, brands, and experiences in a revolutionary new way. 

This series comprises three parts:

Managing Director, SciStories LLC

Co-owner of Genius Games LLC

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Dirk KnemeyerAs a social futurist, Dirk envisions solutions to system-level problems at the intersection of humanity, technology, and society. He is currently the managing director of SciStories LLC, a design agency working with biotech startups and research scientists. In addition to leading SciStories, Dirk is a co-owner of Genius Games LLC, a publisher of science and history games. He also cohosts and produces Creative Next, a podcast and research project exploring the future of creative work. Dirk has been a design entrepreneur for over 15 years, has raised institutional venture funding, and has enjoyed two successful exits. He earned a Master of Arts from the prestigious Popular Culture program at Bowling Green.  Read More

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