In simplifying complex systems that involve humans, frameworks such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are often used to model product and service features based on various predetermined scenarios. Such frameworks are often taken out of context of their original proposition, and lack empirical evidence. For example, Maslow originally proposed his hierarchy as a set of human needs that required fulfilment in order for people to attain self-actualization—but the majority of products and services are not developed with this goal in mind. Additionally, to date, despite multiple attempts to generate empirical evidence, the hierarchy of needs lacks proof. Ask any anthropologist, and they will tell you that humans are not nearly as fixed and easy to predict as these frameworks would suggest.
People are complicated. As such, our needs are not engineered for stacking and compartmentalizing. They’re constantly shifting in response to our ability to leverage our biological, sociocultural, economic, and physical environment. They are not necessarily hierarchical, and we don’t know if consumers place a greater value on any one in particular.
Contrary to this article’s introduction, our goal is not to disprove Maslow or other common frameworks describing human needs, but rather to describe how our complex and interconnected needs and expectations demand a multidimensional approach for analysis. Through this proposition, we challenge a belief that is commonly held by product designers: that people must be simplified into generalizable, linear hierarchies. Such a process is overly reductionist in nature and objectifies the very people whose lives we hope to better.
To deliver compelling experiences, human needs should be linked to the particular emotive, cognitive, and functional features of a context. Our past research proves that needs and priorities vary between groups and time/context. In a study around families that live in connected homes, we discovered that something as fundamental as home security is a high priority for some families on certain occasions (for example, when away from the home) but a lower priority (and, in some cases, obtrusive to their privacy) during other times.
This shift in need hierarchies is pervasive and often occurs without notice. When you are hungry, food is important. When you need to send an important message to someone, your smartphone is all you care about. However, people still sometimes attempt to eat a sandwich while walking down the street and texting, or to surf the web on their smartphones at the dinner table in an attempt to satiate both needs at once. There are no permanent hierarchical relationships.
The simplicity and logic of many consumer theories suggest that a hierarchical model should have some relevance to consumer behavior. Our view, however, is that any study focusing on needs addressed by marketing decisions, such as product design, should offer contextually relevant hierarchical structures associated with needs of a given situation, and should reveal novel relationships influencing consumer decisions—rather than minimizing all human needs into a strict hierarchy. Evolutionary psychology, which studies how people adapt in response to shifts in context to attain personal goals, offers a much more robust framework to analyze behavior and can help in creating dynamic scenarios of how a system’s logic can adapt in response to consumers’ needs and choices.
Although modeling a dynamic system that can respond to situated human needs in an end-to-end experience is a step forward in designing future connected products, we believe there is another variable that influences many consumer decisions, challenging the notion of problem- or need-based design: designs that trigger strong emotions. Design is a major competitive weapon and invites emotional relationships that can elicit product desire, even when there is no clear need perceived by a consumer. Success stories, like the Ford Taurus and Black & Decker’s revitalization of GE’s small appliance business, testify to the selling power of attractive designs.
Such cases created a fundamental shift in their respective categories, transforming historically mundane, functional products into objects of desire. This approach to product design not only created a perception of need among consumers, but it also created sensitivity toward how every generation’s style and design language changes, generating a need for more frequent updates and upgrades. Technology firms like Apple have used this as the core principle of their design philosophy and have added value through innovative and attractive designs to differentiate their products. Whether this adds any true value to the consumer’s life is not clearly understood, but history has shown that having the right combination of design details in the product’s features, winning the key moments of the user experience, and having emotional aesthetics that supersede functional performance creates a high perceived value that activates and encourages consumption.
Our past research about smarthomes demonstrated that there is a hierarchy for consumer decisions that persuade and influence consumer preferences toward certain products. For example, consumers prefer the Nest system over other options for climate control in the home. This is not only because it looks good, but also because of how the product creates a perception of “smartness” by demonstrating superiority in function. It triggers a sense of curiosity and a sense of superiority in the consumer. It becomes an entry to future possibilities yet to unfold. This is carefully done through the product’s aesthetics (Nest resembles HAL, the AI agent in 2001: A Space Odyssey) and a seamless experience. From installation, to daily use, to troubleshooting, it has been designed in a way that makes us feel as though all potentials for failure have been anticipated.
An interesting question is whether consumers prefer functional products or aesthetically pleasing products, if given a lack of options that satisfy both qualities. When consumers have to choose between a Nest thermostat and another brand with less beautiful design but better technology, they are confronted with a trade-off between aesthetic and functional features. Favoritism toward Nest suggests a perceived greater value in the aesthetics of this particular device category. It has to do with the “perceived satisfaction” rather than performance, reliability, or additional features. Consumers also link the modern design to a price premium.
Our future (or not-so-future) smarthomes will contain elements of many different technological disciplines and business rules, such as home automation, home entertainment, security, robotics, and wellness management. So, when we design connected products for the home of the future, we need to investigate the extent to which they address a variety of shifting needs, even if they aren’t critical or are already being fulfilled. Even if we were to accept Maslow’s theory, it’s unlikely that receiving notifications from a pillow or having to negotiate with the dishwasher would have any place in his version of self-actualization. In designing future products and services that are yet to exist, we need to move away from needs altogether, and better understand what influences people’s perceptions of need and value. We need to develop a hierarchy of imagination.