Satisfying Fundamental Human Needs

January 8, 2018

Many modern experiences that are supposed to satisfy our intrinsic needs often have the opposite effect. As the Time article “You Asked: Is Social Media Making Me Miserable?” described, users of the social-media platforms Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram experience depression and anxiety after perusing their feeds. And why not? Their feeds deliver a glut of images and videos that depict friends taking lavish vacations or doing other enviable things. The flashy highlight reels that bombard users provoke unfair comparisons—and, as human beings, we often internalize our shortcomings more readily than our blessings. This dulls our focus on things that should make us feel grateful.

But social-media platforms’ attempt to bolster the well-documented human need for acceptance often has the opposite effect. And this is just one of the needs that define what it means to be human. Our hyper-paced modern culture blunts and distorts other important human needs as well.

In this article, I’ll discuss four important human needs that product companies tend overlook and how UX professionals can help to nurture them rather than contribute to their suppression:

  • mastery
  • caution
  • discovery
  • resonance
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Very bad things can happen if human beings are deprived of the opportunity to master skills. Tim Hartford, author of The Guardian article “Crash: How Computers Are Setting Us Up for Disaster,” gives several examples that explain how an over-reliance on computers and automated systems is setting humans up for disaster. He calls this the paradox of automation, in the belief that the better the automated solution, the more unskilled its human operators will become. This can lead to extreme consequences should the system fail. Hartford offers some sobering real-world examples, including a horrifying disaster involving an Airbus 330 commercial airliner that occurred because of pilots’ over-reliance on the autopilot system.

Because of some product companies’ insistence on delivering automated turnkey solutions, they are eliminating manual solutions that benefit from human mastery. Human mastery of manual systems is especially crucial in situations that are sensitive to human safety, security, and costs.

As I described in Part 3 of my series UX for the Industrial Environment, the industrial-automation domain is a world of controllers, drives, input/output modules, switches, and human-machine interfaces (HMIs)—things that are not human. But industrial-automation systems are more human than you might think, because human beings are still very much a part of the process—and rightfully so.

In the realm of industrial automation, specialized knowledge requires deeper levels of thought and expertise—as well as training, education, and plenty of hands-on experience. After all, controllers and related devices run production lines that produce shippable products worth millions—if not billions—of dollars each day. According to the article “What 1 Minute of Unplanned Downtime Costs Major Industries” in Business Insider, just one minute of unscheduled down time costs automotive manufacturers $22 thousand. The cost would be even higher for a highly regulated pharmaceutical, food, or beverage producer.

People’s need to master skills within the context of the industrial environment is crucial. However, not everyone can write ladder logic like that shown in the example in Figure 1. This is a common programming language for engineers who program industrial controllers. As its name suggests, ladder logic is a rung-based interface for showing program routings and subroutines. While the language has been in use for decades, it would confound most modern users. The question is: should it? After all, it can be difficult to locate and hire qualified workers with the skills and experience necessary for this level of programming.

Figure 1—Ladder-logic programming language
Ladder-logic programming language

Image source: Mr. PLC

Should companies implement a new solution that hides the complexities of a programmable logic controller (PLC) behind an opaque turnkey solution that suppresses human involvement? Feasibility concerns aside, a more novice-centered approach would certainly lower the barrier to entry for this specialized role, deepening the pool of qualified candidates.

What if something goes wrong with an automated solution that has been kept beyond the novice user’s reach—until a disaster occurs? Would a novice who is unaware of many of the programming complexities be able to fix the problem?

As Tim Hartford has concluded, disasters loom large where human users have not had the opportunity to master important skills that would allow them to envision solutions and troubleshoot unforeseen problems. When we ask less of human beings, they’ll undoubtedly give us less. They won’t pursue specialized knowledge or gain practical, hands-on experience that would enable them to adapt to the unknown. Computers and algorithms are not perfect. If we offload all work to them, we’ll unwittingly create a world full of novices.

But there’s a delicate balance to human intervention. As the Wired article “The Very Human Problem Blocking the Path to Self-Driving Cars” concludes, partial human control of automobiles on the road, or level-three automation, is more dangerous than the level-five automation in a fully automated vehicle. Humans simply cannot become vigilant at a moment’s notice if they suddenly need to control a two-ton projectile that’s hurtling down a highway. How would the computer know when to give control to the human? How would the human know when to take control from the computer? Might the human occupant of the car be playing Solitaire, checking Instagram, or typing on their computer’s keyboard when it’s suddenly time to intervene? As you can imagine, this story would not end well. The need for human intervention is heavily dependent on the task, context, and potential risk.

Modern automated solutions have provided countless benefits—saving time, effort, and money. The key is to offload the correct tasks to automated systems—those that shouldn’t tax the user’s finite cognitive capacity because their expertise would be needed elsewhere. Programming a controller isn’t an activity that we should completely offload or simplify to the degree that it erodes the engineer’s ability to overcome unforeseen scenarios. Despite the blurred line between human and computer tasks, there are ways to allow mastery.

Allow Mastery

Don’t hand-hold novice users at the expense of their ability to become advanced users. Like it or not, skilled users are great at finding ways to circumvent any limitations we impose upon them. They may create their own shortcuts and accelerators to achieve their goals—despite the finite sphere of product features we offer them. We need to give people a helping hand to ensure they’re not wasting their cognitive capacity or time by taking such matters into their own hands. Find ways to reward people for excellence. Electronic Arts (EA) experienced major backlash when they failed to reward excellence. They had chosen to use real-world money and the amount of time played as incentives for unlocking special characters and features of their video game Star Wars Battlefront II—even for unskilled players. Needless to say, that decision didn't sit well with serious gamers.

If you’re designing an installable desktop application, ensure that you support keyboard shortcuts and access keys. Let advanced users be the masters of their keyboard. Allow them to create shortcuts or templates for reuse. Provide accelerators where you can, while still supporting the needs of the novice user. Understand what menial tasks shouldn’t trouble either novice or advanced users and automate them. Allow users to leverage their incredible brainpower because, if they don’t use it, they’ll lose it.


The need for caution gets a bad rap in our frenzied culture. But it’s human nature to proceed into an unfamiliar space with caution, lingering at the fringes to observe and think before stepping out into the open and risking making ourselves vulnerable. After all, that’s how our early ancestors survived the perils of the world. They didn’t charge down a steep river bank with arms flailing, hoping to collect fresh water or spear a fish. Instead, they paused or approached slowly so they could observe their surroundings and render good judgment before committing to an action that could make them vulnerable. The decision to slow down didn’t just help them catch prey; it helped them to avoid becoming prey. A predator might have been lurking nearby in the brush, waiting for them to make a careless decision.

While the digital spaces we inhabit today are virtual rather than physical, there still may be predators lurking in dark corners. Many modern software patterns lull us into a false state of security. You click, click, click until, uh-oh, you’ve run right into a predator’s clutches who could steal your private information, ransom you, or otherwise destroy your life.

A healthy sense of caution can be a good thing to keep us on our toes. Smartphones and modern digital experiences offer many benefits, but they also encourage us to race forward without a thought to what might be lurking unseen.

However, there are ways to encourage caution, which can be beneficial if we implement them thoughtfully.

The article by Tim Hartford, to which I referred earlier, describes an example of a unique traffic solution that Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman created in the 1980s. After speeding cars killed two children in the small village of Oudeshake, Monderman considered traditional solutions such as traffic signs, traffic lights, and speed bumps. However, instead of implementing measures that would frustrate drivers, encouraging them to race from one obstacle to the next—still on autopilot—Monderman realized that drivers needed to perceive they were in a village. His solution? Remove the traffic signs, replace the asphalt with brick paving, and make the separation of pedestrians from drivers more ambiguous. The result was an experience that communicated village to drivers. After its implementation, traffic through the village slowed so much that it wasn’t possible to measure cars’ speed with a radar gun. This solution worked because drivers disengaged their inner autopilot and instead engaged their brains as they approached the village. The village became safer as a result.

Encourage Caution

In software experiences, there are plenty of well-known scenarios that necessitate caution on the part of the user. Resetting a device to its factory settings should not be as easy as swiping right on Tinder. Nor should resetting a password or deleting an entire album from a photo gallery. The same applies to ensuring accuracy. For example, making users enter a new password twice or review the contents of their shopping cart before clicking Purchase are obvious ways of increasing the accuracy of data entry or verifying choices before finalizing a difficult-to-reverse action.

But there could be other scenarios in which you need to encourage caution. All too many modern experiences unwittingly encourage carelessness. Consider other situations in which you should design to get the user to disengage his autopilot mode. In what scenarios do need the equivalent of a brick-paved village? Make sure that users perceive that it’s a village—not an express lane on a highway.


Human beings’ need for exploration, discovery, and serendipitous experience is encoded within our genes. We have thrived on this planet for thousands of years because we are intrepid explorers and inventors. We have a long track record of testing our reality and poking and prodding at its fabric in discovering the unexpected. Yet many modern digital experiences suppress our innate need for discovery in the guise of saving us time, money, or effort.

When Amazon knows what you want even before you do, something unfortunate may happen: you might believe Amazon, get distracted, stop discovering, and forget your original goal in the process. Smartphones and Amazon Prime offer many valuable conveniences, but it is still possible to satisfy the human need for discovery while providing wonderful user experiences.

Enable Discovery

Take a cue from Costco Wholesale. They don’t label most of their aisles because they want you to get lost in the store’s labyrinth of towering shelving units and discover things on your own. There’s a bright, flat-screen TV over there. And just over yonder, there’s a love seat that would complete your living room—if you’re willing to part with $700, of course. Guess what? This approach works.

Costco is wildly successful because they let you imagine and discover things that deserve exploring. They do curate pedestrian goods such as paper towels and trash bags because finding them shouldn’t trouble you. Unlike typical grocery stores, where you’ll find countless brands, Costco vets, then stocks what they deem to be the worthiest product options. They want you to focus your brain on bigger things that are worthy of your exploration, so they’ve done the leg work and chosen mundane items for you. That lets you get lost and discover that big-screen TV for your home theater. Costco also sells cheap hot dogs and pizza by the slice and offers plenty of tasty samples to fuel your discovery and satisfy your appetite.

Your product’s experience might benefit from letting users become the intrepid explorers they really are. But ensure you offload the things that are least worthy of someone’s chance discovery. As with mastery, think about the menial, nuisance tasks in your experience that unnecessarily tax the user’s cognitive load. Offload those tasks, so users can get lost in worthy experiences.


Many modern experiences make a bee-line for our wallet, bombarding us with targeted marketing, shoving us into a purchase funnel, and converting us into customers. Except they’re not really creating business relationships with their customers. They’re focusing on business transactions.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Have you ever gotten lost in a great book? Did the book break free of the bounds of its covers and spill out into other parts of your life? Maybe you didn’t want the book to end, so chose to extend the experience by taking the time to search for a location, a person, or an event to which its text referred. Perhaps you read blog or community message-board posts that fellow readers wrote. Maybe you even went as far as expressing your own thoughts in a public forum. Even if your response was simply emotive, something special happened. This experience is resonance. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines resonance as a quality of richness or variety or a quality of evoking a response. A satisfying experience, similar to any compelling literary work, evokes a response from the user that transcends the actual encounter.

Your product experience can evoke resonance. In a tweet about the unknown fate of a key character in his science-fiction trilogy The Passage, author Justin Cronin implied that he had intentionally created a loose end, as you can see in Figure 2. Cronin’s intent was to cede some ownership to his readers, giving them permission to imagine this character’s fate beyond the bounds of the book. Because the entirety of the literary experience wasn’t defined for them, readers could extend their experience beyond the book’s final page.

Figure 2—Author Justin Cronin’s tweet
Author Justin Cronin's tweet

Image source: Twitter

Reading a book is an accomplishment, but it’s the feeling of ownership of a story that further enriches the reader’s experience. Cronin’s calculated decision to allow a dangling loose end also evoked public responses from his readers, as you can also see in Figure 2.

Resonance matters in the world of software experiences, and you can deliberately create resonance. I’m a frequent user of Slack for Teams. While I enjoy the tool’s simplicity and efficiency, it’s the personality that the company continually injects into the product that truly sets it apart. Slack is notorious for finding clever ways to surprise and delight their users, converting seemingly mundane encounters into memorable ones that create resonance. For example, the customizable message that appears when the application is loading lets users showcase their cleverness and wit to all their teammates.

But there are more innocuous examples. As Figure 3 shows, the Slack team didn’t miss an opportunity to reward me with a wink and a nudge when I prepared to install a release update. They could have simply treated this as a business transaction, stating that they had “fixed the problem with window zoom.” But how memorable would that have been? Instead, they morphed an otherwise pedestrian experience—displaying release notes—into an opportunity to create resonance.

Figure 3—A release note from Slack
A release note from Slack

Did it resonate? Absolutely. As Figure 4 shows, the experience provoked me to tweet the company and express my appreciation of the experience’s unexpected surprise and delight. I chose to extend my experience beyond the bounds of that encounter because it resonated.

Figure 5—My tweet to Slack
My tweet to Slack

Create Resonance

Does your product experience compel users to thank you? Do people take time out of their day to promote what you’ve created? What are your users doing, on their own time, to extend their relationship with your product or service outside the bounds of the experience? A great product experience turns users into loyal brand ambassadors who will sing your product’s praises if you’ve rewarded them in some unexpected way. Slack has done this for me and others. Costco has done this for many people. According to an article on Huffington Post, “12 Reasons to Love Costco, As If You Needed More,” Costco doesn’t just have adoring fans, they have a cultish fan base.

To create resonance, look for opportunities to surprise and delight your users. Exceed their expectations, and let them chart their own relationship with your product—outside the anticipated boundaries. The more innocuous that users might anticipate an encounter will be, the bigger the payoff they’ll get when you reward them in some unexpected way. Your product will resonate with them.


Most companies do not intend their product experiences to be soul-sucking vacuums that could eradicate the true human condition, but some companies do exploit human tendencies. For example, Facebook knowingly integrates addictive experiences into its product.

As Peter Hornsby reveals in his UXmatters article, “The Ethics of User Experience,” a former Facebook executive openly admitted that the company exploits habit-forming vulnerabilities in human psychology. The little red notification badge that appears in the user interface each time you open the application is an itch they know you’ll just have to scratch. As UX professionals, we should ensure that we’re putting humans first—not exploiting those who interact with our products.

In this article, I’ve described four human needs that product companies tend to overlook, but are nonetheless deserving of nurturing. Empower users to leverage their skills and become masters of their craft. Facilitate caution where an autopilot scenario could lead to real danger. Let human beings become the intrepid explorers they truly are and discover those things that are worthy of discovery. And finally, encourage people to chart their own destinies beyond an encounter’s anticipated boundaries to experience resonance.

Above all, let human beings be humans. 

Director of User Experience at Rockwell Automation

Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Jonathan WalterJon has a degree in Visual Communication Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. Jon joined Rockwell Automation in 2013, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell in 2020, balancing design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals, then became a full-time User Experience Manager in 2021. In 2022, Jon was promoted to Director of User Experience at Rockwell.  Read More

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