What role does the Hierarchy of Needs play in Design?

One of the most influential psychologists in the 20th century, Abraham Maslow, released a paper in 1943 called, ‘A Theory of Human Motivation. The paper’s central idea was that human needs could be categorized into a pyramid-shaped hierarchy called the ‘Hierarchy of Needs. It’s a revolutionary theory that is still referenced by researchers today, but what does this have to do with design?

In 2010, Steven Bradley created a modified version to guide designers, called the ‘Design Hierarchy of Needs. This updated hierarchy takes the psychological theory and turns it into a tool to help designers create a more useful, targeted product. With an overabundance of saturated markets, applying a psychological framework can be the edge a product and designer needs to succeed.

Background

Before explaining the modified version, it is necessary to understand the original hierarchy. In ‘A Theory of Human Motivation,’ the basic, most essential needs are at the base of the pyramid, the second level represents the second-most important needs, and so on to the tip of the pyramid. This structure highlights that the higher levels can’t be properly addressed unless the most basic needs are met.

As shown above, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs includes 5 tiers. From the base, these are:

  1. Physiological needs, such as food, air, sleep, and water. These are basic things humans need to survive.
  2. Safety Needs, such as physical safety, mental safety, and financial security. Maslow considered these the next most basic elements of motivation.
  3. Belongingness and love needs, like friends, family, and other relationships. This involves feelings of belongingness or being part of a group.
  4. Esteem Needs, including self-worth, respect, and accomplishments. The fourth tier involves constructs such as status or reputation.
  5. Self-actualization is a state of achieving one's full potential, whether that be peak creativity or efficiency. Maslow stated this could not be achieved unless the preceding four tiers were met.

Maslow argued that higher tiers could technically be met before a lower one, but the fulfillment is not sustainable. For example, even the world’s leading UX designers will struggle to repeatedly produce excellent products if they are overtired or physically unsafe.

Where Maslow’s Hierarchy Meets Design

Of course, designs don’t need physical or mental safety to succeed; they’re concepts and don’t need air or water to survive. So how does this translate? It follows the same basic structure.

As detailed above, Steven Bradley’s design mirrors Maslow’s hierarchy’s rule of tiers, so to progress to the next stage of the pyramid, the basic needs of the design must first be met. In Bradley’s theory, the five tiers are as follows:

  1. Functionality - Does the product work?
  2. Reliability - Is the performance of the product stable and consistent?
  3. Usability - Is the product easy to use?
  4. Proficiency - Can this product help the user do a task better?
  5. Creativity - What makes this product well-designed?

1.    Functionality

The service or product has to function before any other elements are considered. This means the basic functions of a product must work before any further steps are considered. If you’re designing a smartphone, it must meet all the defining requirements of a smartphone before any additional functions are considered (to make and receive calls, send text messages, browse the web, etc.). The design has already failed if it doesn’t meet these requirements.

2.    Reliability

At this level, the designer should now focus on offering stable and consistent performance. It must not only work once but work time and time again. The product must already function or achieve the base tier in the pyramid before examining reliability, which supports Bradley’s hierarchical model. Once again, design should have little influence on this tier, as reliability is more important.

3.    Usability

Now, we must assess the products' accessibility. How easily can people accomplish basic tasks? Take the smartphone example. Can users figure out how to turn it on or access the homepage? This is where UX designers often come in to optimize the service provided and keep customers happy. This is the first level in which design is considered to influence whether or not the tier’s criteria are satisfied.

4.    Proficiency

This segment is where designers must consider how the product can help users do tasks more proficiently. What sets this product apart from others in its field? Every product entering the market must have a feature that gives an advantage over its competitors. This tier is where designers isolate and highlight that quality. Consider the smartphone. Perhaps it has a superior camera or battery life - showcase it! This is where design becomes a significant contributor to the fulfillment of the tier and can make the difference between a good and a great product.

5.    Creativity

This is the final, crowning achievement of design. Using the running example involves asking questions like ‘How can your design interact with users in new and innovative ways?’ or ‘Can it function as a debit card or rail pass?’

Bradley notes there is little point in considering what makes a product excel if it isn't functioning, reliable, user-friendly, and proficient. This final level is limited only by the designer and allows room for features that expand on the product itself, which makes it the playground of truly excellent design.

To Conclude

So, the product you’ve created meets four of these hierarchical criteria but misses out on one or two in the middle, is this a deal breaker? No, not necessarily. In reality, most users will be forgiving if the product or service plays up once in a full moon, and there are systems like beta-testing and quality control to catch any significant faults pre-launch. What's important is to listen to feedback and make improvements when needed.

Most of the time, designers will intuitively solve lower-tier needs before attempting to add higher-tier ones. However, the framework provided by Bradley’s ‘Design Hierarchy of Needs is a helpful point of reference that can simplify an overwhelming or complex project into its basic needs.

 

Are you thinking about design from a psychological standpoint? If you’re considering a new approach or want to stay up to date with current design approaches, this article is for you.