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Hierarchy of Needs – the Deprecated Pyramid

Essential Question: Can User Experience and Usability needs fit into a  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs type pyramid?

All these pyramids are deprecated.  I’ve spent the last few hours slowly fading into madness and … here is how it began…

Ben and I got to discussion a post on UXMovement.com titled “Are You Meeting the User Experience Hierarchy of Needs?” by Anthony.  It was interesting and had a bunch of comments.  I decided to research it more and share it with you. here:

First Maslow’s

Pretty much everything from the 40s sucked... name one, really

Everyone ‘sort of’ understands Maslow’s pyramid. They may not understand it fully.  It may be like Darwin’s theory of evolution – everyone can give you the basic tenants, but it is probably misunderstood. Here’s my understanding of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Food and water and shelter are basic needs that take precedence over things like morality and respect of others.  You must satisfy the basic, base levels of the pyramid BEFORE you can / want to satisfy the higher levels.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often cited when explaining why a typically law-abiding person will break the law (higher order) in order to get food or sex (lower order).  It’s a theory I have problems with.

Here are my questions: In order to be a whole person do you need to satisfy all needs?  Is it harder to meet higher,  mid, or lower needs?  Does the pyramid establish a sequential order for achieving needs?  And, to transition to interface design, must a “quality” website satisfy the all needs?  Is it harder to meet the higher needs than the lower needs? Must the design process start with satisfying lower basic needs and move on to higher needs?

UXMovement.com article by Anthony Tseng

Tseng's Hierarchy

This article and chart puts functionality as the base of the pyramid.  Together with information, this forms the first half of basic needs.  The top half are higher needs with aesthetics below and usability on top.

Usability breaks out of the pyramid top suggesting that it is not inside the pyramid – or this could have been done to promote readability as the font would be very small if made to fit in the tip of the pyramid.

He outlines a model that says you must begin interface design with functionality and move on to content and aesthetics in order to achieve usability. Anthony defines usability as “the ease-of-use of an interface that increases user productivity.” There was some debate on this article and several commenters wanted to put aesthetics at the top of the pyramid – which makes me scratch my head.

Flickr hypercatalecta UX hierarchy

Pretty Bullshit or Insightful visualization?

Even though Anthony did not like this pyramid Chart, I like it quite a bit.  Anthony called it pretty bullshit (which I thought was slightly rude). Just like a cow patty, this chart can teach a lesson. Working from the outside in, the chart establishes two contexts. At the top we have subjective/qualitative and ‘focused on experiences( people, activities, context)’ with an arrow pointing downward.  The second context is at the bottom it states: objective/quantifiable ( products, features) and ‘focused on tasks’ with an arrow pointing upward.

Within the context of tasks (going up), the graphic seems to relate that the priority sequence is: functional( useful), reliable, … and peaking at meaningful.

Within the context of experience (going down), the graphic seems to relate that the priority of sequence is reversed – that meaningful is the first priority and functional useful is the last priority.

This chart tries to make the distinction between subjective experiences and objective tasks.  That’s what I like about it. It seems state that if a subjective experience is meaningful and pleasurable that it does not have to be reliable or functional. Or that a subjective experience that is meaningful and pleasurable need not be reliable or functional. And this DOES seem to be descriptive of my personal experience.

If you have a meaningful and pleasurable relationship with a beautiful girlfriend, you don’t really care if it’s reliable or functional [Radio Edit]. But I don’t think he’s talking about relationships. If you just love your iPhone , you can subjectively overlook usability [Siri, why can’t I just drag and drop my files from my computer to my iPhone.  Siri?] – Think supercars in the 80s – Toyota’s were WAY more usable. If you were focused on tasks, then you just care if it’s useful and reliable (Toyota)-you don’t really care that it’s not meaningful or pleasurable (Ferrari).

The fact that convenient lies in the center of hypercatalecta‘s diagram  is important. That says that convenience is of equal value for objective users and subjective users. Both those focused on experiences and those focused on tasks care about convenience.

But here’s my problem: why is it a pyramid?. I have a feeling they just did that to make it look pretty. Perhaps this is why Anthony called it pretty bullshit (He called another guy pretentious )  But, because it defines the subjective / objective vectors, it gives me valuable insights.  When working with some clients – subjectively oriented clients – they really only care about aesthetics… but here is where I think folks are missing the point – the reason they feel that way, is because that’s their experience.  That’s how they experience the site.  It’s their user experience.

This is why I concur with Paul Veugen –  and others –   that user experience is a super-system of usability.  And, user experience is a complex interaction of many facets.  Why?  That little word USER.  People are complex – they are different shapes and sizes, speak different languages, and use websites in different ways and for different reasons.  Simply put – WE are the definition of complexity on this planet …currently

Alternatively, usability is technical.  Usability can be measured… and can be measured by any asshole.  Can you hear me now?

Voted most popular (non-contexual) user tester!

Moving forward –

Here’s a slideshare from Lyndon Cerejo from back in 2001.  This is actually a very good article and I need to spend more time with it… but I’m getting pretty sidetracked here.

lyndon Cerejo graphic

Lyndon Cerejo's insightful pyramid from a decade ago


Ugh… let’s look to Smashing Magazine, surely they are shed some light here.

Smashing Mag pyramid

Smashing Mag, per usual, has the issues covered

This article,’Designing For A Hierarchy Of Needs‘ starts off with:

Based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the idea of a design hierarchy of needs rests on the assumption that in order to be successful, a design must meet basic needs before it can satisfy higher-level needs. Before a design can “Wow” us, it must work as intended. It must meet some minimal need or nothing else will really matter.

Is this true? Or could a design that’s hard to use still succeed because it makes users more proficient or meets certain creative needs? Do you have to get all of the low-level needs exactly right before considering higher-level needs? To answer these questions, let’s start by looking at Maslow’s hierarchy.

Notice the author () is talking about general design. Ugh!  Sure enough, we have some semantic issues here.  Damn you language and our plastic language brains.

I feel much of the confusion and debate is sparked by imperfect language and vocabulary.  Design, user experience, and usability: These terms are sometimes used inter-changeably.  Yet, they can be very different.

Can you use these pyramids to build sites and interfaces?  Sure.  But, here’s my insight, you CAN test this way – Regardless of if testing Design, User Experience, or usability.  First test for the base needs and then test for the higher needs.  Why do this?  Well, why not.  Think of it like a map and a way to segment the complex task into manageable chunks.  And, it can help prioritize your testing and help you make decisions and communicate problems to the stakeholders.

For your viewing Pleasure, I’ve collected all the Pyramids on my own private Giza.

image of several UX pyramids

Let's get it all on the table

Final Thoughts

Let’s face it – People love charts and pretty bullshit.  Pyramids are old and busted – honeycomb is the new hotness. Users are complex.

So!  There’s my insight. There’s my learning to share.  I hope you enjoyed it. Now, I’m off to share a beer!

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