Applied Empathy: A Design Framework for Human Needs and Desires


A space for seeing the world in a different way

A column by Dirk Knemeyer
February 25, 2008

Part Three: Real-World Applications

Part One of this series, Applied Empathy, 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. Part Two explained the three Dimensions of Human Behavior and outlined a variety of specific needs and desires for which we can intentionally design products. This third and final part of the series shows how this design framework maps to a variety of well-known products and experiences and illustrates how this framework can be put to practical use.

Mapping the Framework to Digital Products

It is no accident that user experience and experience design originated with and matured from software development: It is only through truly digital products and experiences that we can satisfy all three Dimensions of Human Behavior, both deeply and simultaneously. Software has a unique ability to incorporate both analytical and emotional hooks into virtually any physical activity, in a way that is typically difficult—and often even impossible—in the analog world. It helps account for both the tremendous financial success and the cultural growth of computing lifestyles since the mainstreaming of the personal computer, which was greatly accelerated by the invention and subsequent ubiquity of the Internet. Digital technology has unlocked the potential of this intriguing triangulation of the Analytical, Emotional, and Physical—in the human condition, never before satisfied so fully—which explains why the most celebrated and successful products in recent years tend to skew toward the digital realm. For this reason, I will use two popular digital products as mapping examples.

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Let’s start with the Nintendo Wii. A surprise hit when Nintendo released it in the fall of 2006, the Wii introduced new human/computer interactions in the context of a video game system. Previously, most video games required people to move a joystick to create movement and push buttons to initiate action. These modes of input mapped to game metaphors that had no real-world connection to a joystick and buttons, such as running and jumping. The Wii, using new technology, transformed the joystick-and-buttons paradigm into an interaction model in which players can behave in approximately the same ways in playing games as they would if they were engaging in the same activity in real life.

The best-known examples are from the Wii Sports game, which the game system includes. When bowling, the game allows—and even implicitly encourages—players to walk up and approach the lane, then throw their arms as they would if they were actually bowling. These behaviors are then reflected on the actual game screen. While children and hard-core gamers quickly figured out that all players actually need to do is just flick their wrists in the correct way—the literal mapping of exact physical movements to their corresponding performance on the screen is not necessary—the game nonetheless removes the inhuman interface from the game. Bowling on the Wii can play remarkably like bowling in a real-life bowling alley. The result of this innovation is that the Wii has transformed Nintendo from a moribund kiddie video game platform that was deeply in the shadow of Sony and Microsoft into the runaway hit of 2007. The Wii is such a popular product that—more than a year since its release—retailers still have difficulty keeping it in stock.

Understanding the success of the Wii is fairly straightforward: It took what was predominantly analytical video-game entertainment and immediately made it profoundly physical. However, in the process, it also tapped deeply into the emotional side of game playing. People who had previously seen video games as outside their domain of interest—that is, people who would never consider playing a video game or who even felt intimidated by the idea of playing a video game—suddenly began to play. Video gaming progressed from being the domain of children and young adults into a multigenerational family experience. Stories abound, featuring delighted grandparents playing games with their grandchildren for the first time or even crippled or injured people being able to play and experiencing touching emotional breakthroughs in the process. The success of the Wii is in its incredible triangulation of all three dimensions of human behavior: the Analytical, Emotional, and Physical. Never before have video games been so open and accessible. What was previously the domain of youth subcultures has suddenly become the province of everyone. Even the most ambitious analysts didn’t imagine the degree of impact the Wii was destined to have.

Now, let’s consider the other smash digital product success of 2007: the iPhone. Like the Wii, the iPhone was a major cultural focal point, becoming the must-have adult personal accessory in many parts of the world. Like the Wii, the success of the iPhone is the product of its user interface technology. However, whereas the Wii relied almost exclusively on a revolutionary new interaction model, the iPhone synthesized many different innovations and inventions to collectively move its user experience far beyond that of its nearest competitor. While the iPhone likewise introduced a more natural style human/computer interaction, it also debuted with

  • a large, high-resolution screen that was unique in the industry and brought what approaches desktop-computing capabilities to a handheld
  • incredible battery life relative to its capabilities
  • direct and well-conceived integration with other Apple software programs and the overall computing experience
  • the trademark Apple form-factor sexiness that left all other existing designs far behind

Unlike the Wii, the iPhone did not bring a lot of new customers into the mobile device market: Most adults already owned mobile phones. It did help make truly mobile computing devices more popular. While most people saw the previous category benchmark, the BlackBerry, as a business accessory, the iPhone transcended business to become a lifestyle accessory. Not only did this help Apple take market share from other device manufacturers, it also began to redefine, in a mainstream way, who and what mobile devices are for—at least in the United States. People who would not have considered adding a data package to their old phones were signing up for those expensive data plans and, in doing so, had joined a mobile-computing revolution before they had even realized what was happening. Apple achieved this by creating a product that innovated in so many different ways it set itself apart from competitive products.

Mapping these products to the design framework I’ve described, both the Wii and iPhone succeed very well on all three axes: the Analytical, Emotional, and Physical. On an analytical level, the iPhone brings an Internet experience similar to that of a desktop computer to people’s mobile lifestyle. Via its connection to the Internet and a fully rendered browsing experience, the iPhone enables people to get virtually any information they want in a matter of moments, fostering understanding and building knowledge. While the Wii is more limited in what it has to contribute analytically—because it doesn’t provide such a frictionless window into the Internet and relies on independent software publishers to create worthwhile content—it nonetheless offers analytical potential that is similar to that of any computing device with large-display capabilities and Internet access. Emotionally, both the iPhone and the Wii cover most of the needs and desires the framework outlines, up to and including Belonging. The Physical is where the Wii shines more brightly than the iPhone, successfully covering all of the needs and desires in the physical sphere. While the iPhone, in its current early novelty stage, does touch some of the Participation or even Engagement-level needs and desires, this is the area where the Wii is far superior.

In the totality of their user experiences, both the Wii and the iPhone succeed in reaching the level of Well-Being. With the Wii, this success comes primarily from the Physical, potentially enabling Growth, Health, Joy, and Satiation. In extreme cases, Ecstasy, Meaning, and Fulfillment might even be possible. While the iPhone struggles comparatively—given its limitations in meeting physical needs and desires—its strengths in the analytical and emotional areas are so pronounced that Fulfillment, Growth, Joy, and Meaning are all at least possible through its use.

I chose these two examples because most readers are likely familiar with them, given their cultural significance. However, we can map any product—digital or otherwise—directly to this framework. In almost every case, the products that satisfy more and deeper human needs and desires are either the most successful products in their markets or are very popular and much beloved, despite their not pacing the market. This is no accident. There is a causal business relationship between meeting human needs and desires and how that translates into purchase decisions, product loyalty, and business success. The Wii and iPhone are just two obvious examples of this.

Mapping the Framework to Non-product Experiences

My friend Bob Baxley likes to say that the only true experience designers in history are Hugh Heffner, Walt Disney, and Steve Jobs. While Bob’s point is tongue-in-cheek, it underscores the reality that what so many people erroneously call experience design is really a highly complex symphony of interrelated experiences that operate together as a cohesive whole. Within the realm of human experiences there is a myriad of non-product experiences. Looking at three very different examples, let’s consider

  • customer service contact points such as automated email notifications
  • personal services like a massage
  • environments like a hotel room

Each of these experiences has the potential to affect people on a variety of levels.

An Email Notification Experience

The more contained of these examples offer interesting grist for the potential benefit of meeting human needs and desires. For example, I recently consulted with a company about their automated email process. Each time a pre-ordered product was about to ship and, therefore, a customer’s credit card was charged, the company sent the customer an email notification. The problem was, the email took an entirely inappropriate tone. It told customers the company was “pleased” to be charging their credit cards, yet offered no updated information about when the actual product delivery would occur. Though this necessary touchpoint—communicating a charge was taking place—could have gotten customers excited in anticipation of soon receiving their products, instead it seemed to celebrate the worst part of the purchase experience: losing your money. Needless to say, we changed this and took advantage of the opportunity to make an emotional connection with customers, fueling their sense of anticipation while delivering the necessary information.

Plain-text customer service email notifications have virtually no capacity to affect people physically. Yet, with some good planning and effective execution, communications that are superficially analytical in nature can also have an emotional impact. Assuming the appropriate context, such messages can have far more impact on their recipients and lead to customers who more than just exist, but are even engaged and loyal. This outcome is a product of customers being recognized as people, not just entries in a database, or of establishing Congruence between what customers want and what you are offering, and even letting them know they have a very real modicum of Control, leading to your gaining their Trust and their feeling Accepted and, potentially, even Validated by virtue of your alignment. Over time, this kind of customer relationship can create a feeling of Safety, lead to Expression, and cultivate customers’ perceiving so much alignment between your company and themselves that it turns into Belonging. This is when you make the deepest impact on your customers, and when—in a business sense—your company can really win. And all of this can start with something as innocuous as an email message from customer service.

A Massage Experience

Many of us have had the pleasure of enjoying a massage. For those who haven’t, you might think of a massage as being a strictly physical experience. In fact, in expert hands, the experience of getting a massage is typically as much an emotional experience as it is a physical one. That is what makes getting a massage such a relaxing, rejuvenating activity. And it is the extras surrounding the massage experience that make this so. At the most basic level, a massage is being touched in a very intentional, non-sexual way. However, things like the scent of the massage oil, a dark, candle-lit room, appropriate music, the personality of and relationship with the masseuse—among other things—transform a massage into a truly wonderful experience that does more than just knead one’s muscles, but satisfies a myriad of physical and emotional needs as well.

Unlike the earlier email example, the massage experience is immediately and profoundly physical. Any competent massage goes straight into our productivity-level physical needs and desires. However, considering the massage in such a narrow way misses an opportunity to deeply engage the Emotional as well. If the experience is properly planned and executed—encompassing the appearance and personality of the masseuse, the design of the physical space where the massage takes place, and any accompanying extras—a good massage will delve deeply into the Emotional. More, one way this framework can prove valuable is in helping to brainstorm ideas for stretching activities to satisfy other needs and desires—such as taking a massage into the Analytical. In my experience, with a massage, the extent of analytical opportunity is limited to the conversation with and insight of the masseuse. However, brainstorming a bit, how could we design a massage experience that had an extreme analytical impact? Handouts with health tips? An audio book about the history and impact of massage? A device to wear over one’s eyes during a massage that transmits information silently? Not all of these are good ideas, but it is an example of how one could take an experience that superficially falls into one of the three Dimensions of Human Behavior and find a way to extend it into even the seemingly least compatible of the other dimensions.

A Hotel Room Experience

My third example, a hotel room, is a context that is the product of much design thinking and investment, because wealthy business travelers have money to spend and continue upping the ante on what they expect from their hotel experience. Recently, I had the opportunity to stay at the Hudson Hotel, a boutique Manhattan property by noted hotelier Ian Schrager. While the lobby and other public spaces were stylish, beautiful, and comfortable, our room was anything but. While the fit and finish of the room were superficially well designed, it was actually just a cheap veneer. And the room was tiny. The “Queen-sized” bed was closer in size to a double; there was less than two feet of space between the bed and the wall on every side. You couldn’t turn around without touching the wall. The same was the case in the bathroom. While this would be uncomfortable for anyone, it was particularly so for me, being a big 6'4". While my expectation of this high-end, boutique hotel experience was that I would experience something special, instead it was inferior to your garden-variety business chain hotel.

Hotel rooms offer delicious potential to take care of people. Physically, with a comfortable bed, plush towels, and silky sheets. Emotionally, with thoughtful service, beautiful décor, and nice touches. Analytically, with in-room entertainment, travel tips, and local information. When these and other things are done well and combined in the right proportions, a hotel can meet many human needs and desires. A positive hotel experience makes the process of leaving one’s home and sanctuary—where most of us derive our center and strength—pleasant, as opposed to uncertain. Those of us who have had the privilege of traveling around the world have indelible memories of our travels, and—at least for me—exceptional hotel experiences are a part of that. The hotels that are memorable, the ones that I recount stories about, are those that paid attention to and met or exceeded my needs and desires.

Of these three examples, the hotel room is certainly the easiest to consider: By its very nature, it is large and nuanced enough to encompass all three Dimensions of Human Behavior. The lesson from the hotel room experience is the importance of deeply accounting for the Analytical, Emotional, and Physical in order to help people reach the point of Well-Being—the highest level of needs and desires in the framework. It is difficult to create things like Ecstasy, Fulfillment, and Meaning. Not only is it nearly impossible to, for example, have Ecstasy without some degree of emotional connection to complement the Physical, it is generally much easier to achieve the level of Well-Being if all three dimensions—the Analytical, Emotional, and Physical—are being addressed at some level. Indeed, like a three-legged stool, the more balanced all three are, the easier it is to move up to the higher and deeper levels. The more opportunity and tools you have at your disposal for creating rich experiences, the more diligent you must be to take full advantage of them. In part, this is for traditional competitive reasons—to make sure you are not failing by virtue of not measuring up—but the real magic happens when you are focused and effective enough to take your experience design further in order to get as deep as you possibly can. That is where transcendent experiences happen and where the opportunity to become a clear market leader—or to charge unreasonable premiums that people will happily pay—really exists.

Putting the Framework to Work

There are four primary ways in which using this design framework and approach can dramatically improve the quality of experiences your company creates:

  • organizational vision setting and brand planning—Companies that want to engineer their touchpoints to meet explicit needs and desires should weave these into a company’s very DNA and overall brand experience, not simply the tactical things they produce. How this happens really depends on the way each organization handles its vision setting and brand planning, which are company-specific, complex, professional activities. And exactly how a company should integrate this framework is going to vary from company to company. However, if a company’s foundational goals include identifying the needs and desires it most intends to meet, and a company makes this design framework available to all participants for reference and discussion at the appropriate times, throughout the integration process, a company can successfully build into its corporate essence an intentional focus on meeting explicit human needs and desires.
  • experience planning—Even before a company first conceptualizes a product or service idea, there should be a clear vision and direction around its reason for being, and that reason for being should map to articulated needs and desires. Typically, the people responsible for this planning have titles like vice president or general manager or product manager. They communicate their expectations for a product—as well as those of the larger organization—to design and development teams in a document like a Marketing Requirements Document (MRD) or Product Requirements Document (PRD). Such documents should include explicitly stated needs and desires, mapped to the framework, with an explanation of how and why the eventual deliverable should meet those needs and desires. Design and development teams should also have a voice in determining or negotiating requirements, because creating things in such an intimate way—paying close attention to meeting needs and desires—requires a shared vision that reaches from the top all the way down to the bottom of an organization. Everyone involved in making decisions that contribute to the creative process should feel a shared ownership of what they’re designing and why. This will help ensure the development team actually meets expectations, as they strive to meet all of them.
  • design validation—Good design practice involves testing and iteration of prototypes before implementing a final design. During this process, the defined needs and desires should be a key criteria in measuring design success. Go down the list and. for each, ask, “Is the design meeting this one?” If it’s not, you need to figure out why and iterate your design to achieve the intent.
  • experience review—You can and should evaluate any experience in relation to the degree to which it meets needs and desires. After all, it is fine if one product has a smaller footprint than another or is more attractive than another. But what does that mean? Is it important? Why? By reviewing a product from the perspective of needs and desires—by asking explicitly what needs and desires, if any, it is meeting—you can draw more and deeper conclusions and insights about what you are evaluating. You can better identify market opportunities, product deficiencies, and transcendent ideas. It is simply a more sophisticated way of considering operating dynamics.

This applied empathy approach is very different from that of most companies. Not everyone is comfortable discussing deep human needs and desires in a mature and sophisticated way. Indeed, society has discouraged many of us from probing or being sensitive to such things outside the circles of our closest friends and families. However, as markets become optimized and international competition continually intensifies, it will become increasingly necessary to employ new processes and approaches in order to be successful in a competitive global marketplace.

This design framework attempts to open a beachhead for UX professional’s taking a methodical and systematic approach to developing and evaluating experiences that focuses on the most important consideration of all: meeting human needs and desires. I hope you find this approach interesting and useful, and encourage you to learn, try, and share these methods with others. 

Dirk Knemeyer teaches a class on Applied Empathy at the Involution Master Academy. If you want more information or are interested in attending the course and experiencing the methods for applying this framework in a hands-on context, learn more.

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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