Are You Meeting the User Experience Hierarchy of Needs?

by on 11/29/11 at 10:36 pm

The hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow describing the stages of growth in humans. But just like in humans, interfaces go through different stages of growth too. These stages of growth for interfaces are the user experience hierarchy of needs. The most basic needs start at the bottom of the pyramid and end with the highest needs at the top. If the basic needs aren’t met, it’s difficult to find the desire and motivation to meet the higher needs. The basic needs in the UX pyramid are functionality and information. The higher needs are aesthetics and usability.

Functionality

The most basic need of an interface is functionality. This need is met when the interface will work without breaking. It’ll have little to no bugs, and everything you click will take you exactly where it’s intended to go. To begin working on your interface’s functionality, you need to at least know what tasks your interface will perform and how it will do them. Without proper functionality, your interface will surely have a poor user experience.

Information

An interface without information is a useless, empty shell. Information is the next basic need for an interface. This need is met when your interface delivers correct and up-to-date content in a readable format to users. If users have to struggle to read your content, they won’t bother. And if your content is not correct or up-to-date, it’s not usable for them, and they will end up going somewhere else. Information is the meat of an interface. When you fill your interface with quality content, users can rely on it more.

Aesthetics

After you meet your interface’s basic needs, it’s time to focus on your interface’s higher needs. Aesthetics is the first higher need. To meet this need, your interface needs a unique, friendly and professional look that sets it apart from the crowd. Good aesthetics is what will make users remember your interface. It can even help you create a loyal following among your users. By examining the aesthetics, users should get a sense of your interface’s values and personality.

Usability

When most people speak of user experience, they’re usually referring to usability, the highest need of the user experience hierarchy. Usability is the ease of use of an interface that increases user productivity. Interfaces that have a high level of usability allow users to complete tasks quickly and accurately. However, most interfaces rarely achieve usability to its full capacity. This is because most interfaces have many user tasks, and there’s always some task that users make errors on or can’t complete fast enough.

To fully meet this need, you need to analyze the accuracy and speed it takes users to complete every task in your interface. This requires putting your interface in front of the user and observing how they behave. It also requires critical design thinking to come up with solutions that clarify and simplify the user’s flow to make tasks easier to do than before. When users can consistently do each task incredibly fast without making any errors, your interface will have met its usability needs.

Conclusion

Many people think that user experience is only about one or two of these needs. But, in reality, user experience makes up all these needs. They are all important. Without meeting the basic needs, it’s hard for your interface grow and meet the higher needs. Without meeting the higher needs, it’s hard for your interface to reach its full potential and give users the best experience possible.

There are many specialists who work to fulfill a particular need of an interface. Some may contribute more to the functionality, while others may contribute more to the usability. But everyone involved plays a role in building the user experience. The big problem is when people focus too much on one need and ignore the other needs. You can’t build a great user experience without completely meeting the user experience hierarchy of needs. In the same way a human needs to reach its full potential to live a happier life, an interface needs to reach its full potential to give us a happier life.

29 Responses to “Are You Meeting the User Experience Hierarchy of Needs?”

  1. Allan Ebdrup

    Nov 30th, 2011

    Great blog post. I would argue that problems in all the layers in the pyramid show up in real user testing.
    We’ve had great success using the service usertesting.com in an iterative manner (test, fix, test, fix, …) And the iterations can be very fast, since usertesting.com has a recorded video of the test ready a couple of hours after you order the test.
    (I’m not affiliated with usertesting.com in any way, I just use their service)


    I’m especially interested in the bottom layer. With all the platforms out there (Mac, PC, smartphones, tablets, IE, Firefox, Chrome etc). It’s hard to know if something breaks on one of them.
    Out of having this need ourselves, we build http://muscula.com (currently in private beta) that logs your JavaScript errors in your production environment. The JavaScript errors that your users actually experience.

  2. DK

    Nov 30th, 2011

    I think, we should interchange Usability and Aesthetics, because our product, even without beautiful images, may be useful and convenient. But without ease of use, our product will be no use to anyone.

    So, beautiful images (aesthetics) – is the final step in the designing of our product.

    • Christophe

      Dec 1st, 2011

      I agree.

      “Good aesthetics is what will make users remember your interface. It can even help you create a loyal following among your users.” => this is YOUR needs, not the one from the users …

    • Justin

      Dec 1st, 2011

      Aesthetics on top of usability is what I was thinking too. If a product isn’t usable , who cares if it’s pretty.

    • PlatypusMan

      Dec 5th, 2011

      Yup, I was thinking the same thing. Pretty But Unusable isn’t much better than Pretty But Nonfunctional.

    • anthony

      Dec 5th, 2011

      Why is usability on top of aesthetics?
      In the design industry, clients’ requests for aesthetics overwhelmingly outweighs their requests for usability. It is a much more common request for an interface to look beautiful than it to be fast and easy to use because people can easily understand beauty, but people can’t easily understand how something works. If an interface is easy to use, people can’t understand why it’s easy to use.

      We might reason that usability is far more important than aesthetics. But in reality, it’s usually the last item on a client’s checklist. The inner workings of usability is often difficult to understand, and many interfaces don’t ever fully achieve usability. There are far more interfaces that achieve beautiful aesthetics in this world than usability. And that is why usability is the peak of the user experience hierarchy of needs.

      • Tom

        Dec 7th, 2011

        But surely this is why clients employ designers?

        • Paul Boos

          Jan 3rd, 2012

          First, I’d agree on reversing usability and aethestics.

          Second, I’d say that usability is more of a basic need or at least a transition to higher level needs, but not a higher level need itself.

          Lastly, I agree with an earlier poster that all of this stuff should be in consideration with each build. I’d also go so far as to say that vertical functional slices of this (along with the software code) should be divided along the functions and be developed in increments.

    • Jose Cuevas

      Jan 30th, 2012

      I agree. Usability needs to be before aesthetics. This is the same priniciple as gameplay before graphics in video games. Aesthetics are great for catching the eye and getting the initial wow factor and bringing new users to your site or application. However, usability is what keeps them coming back.

      • Michelle Meyer

        Feb 19th, 2013

        That’s exactly right Jose and Christophe.

        When designing User Interfaces, you start with the Aesthetics constantly keeping in mind the functionality.
        However, in reality, when working with clients and a design it changes alot and can get moshy and the usability tends to fade away.

        Once the final aesthetics are in place you need to relook and rework the entire application from scratch looking at it entirely in a Usability Approach. Here you iron out all bad design decisions, and take finer look into your User Needs. If your users need to preform tasks quickly, every detail needs to be examined. And certain aeshetics will need to be changed, however these changes with not hurt the design, rather improve them.

        Sometimes the Usability Designer and Visual Designer should be two different people as to keep the opinions objective.

        Fresh eyes on design are usually invaluable.
        User Feedback and User Testing are without a doubt the most important part of any functional User Interface Design.

  3. Patrice Jacquot

    Nov 30th, 2011

    Can’t agree more.

    As practices in software engineering progress, as technical execution becomes better and technical quality increases, we can see usability as the utimate improvement factor. UX is a must to raise a product towards the best 10% (Sturgeon’s law = 90% of everything is crap).

    Similarly, we can use the same hierarchy for the disciplines needed in the software development process. From ground to top of pyramid: execution (development), analysis (requirements), management (team and planning), human centered design … and Usability/UX still on top !

  4. Ryan

    Nov 30th, 2011

    This diagram doesn’t make sense to me. I wouldn’t describe usability in this context alongside the functionality, information and aesthetics, and certainly wouldn’t put it top of the pyramid, implying you only address it after attaining perfection in the other aspects you’ve listed. It underpins interactions at all levels. IMO this is a better representation of the hierachy of user experience: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hypercatalecta/5412796141/

    • anthony

      Nov 30th, 2011

      That diagram has all style but no substance. It’s what I call pretty bullshit. It’s full of fancy adjectives that basically mean the same thing. Reliable, usable, convenient? Meaningful, pleasurable? All of these aspects are apart of Aesthetics and Usability except it’s not described in a pretentious way.

  5. Andy Marshall

    Nov 30th, 2011

    An interesting article, and I often think about UX in these sorts of terms, but I would say there’s a critical component missing here: Engaging people to make an experience an enjoyable/immersive one.

    To quote your article, “When most people speak of user experience, they’re usually referring to usability, the highest need of the user experience hierarchy.”, but for me stating usability as the highest need is flawed; usability alone does NOT make an experience enjoyable, and in fact, usability can be perceived to be higher if a person is more engaged in the task they are completing.

    And if usability is not the highest need, then what is? It’s through applying the principles of psychology, cognitive, and social sciences, that we can truly engage people and create a great user experience, and for me this is the highest need.

    Joshua Porter wrote a good article on this thinking in 2009, where he described having high usability as removing friction, and argued that ‘motivation’ is the other dimension that should be considered when designing a user experience.
    http://ui-patterns.com/blog/Designing-for-usability-vs-motivation

    What Joshua Porter refers to as motivation, is really interpreted as psychology, and the ability to motivate users requires an understanding of human behaviour.

    There was a time when I would have agreed with your thinking, but the industry has matured a lot in the last 5 – 10 years, and from my experience today’s UX professionals (whichever title they operate under) understand that the emphasis in ‘User Experience’ is very much in understanding the ‘User’.

    Usability, whilst of critical importance, is no longer the silver bullet it was once considered to be.

    Andy

    • anthony

      Nov 30th, 2011

      One of the biggest misconceptions in the UX industry is that an interface can be “enjoyable and fun”. An interface is a TOOL. It’s highest function as a tool is getting a job done in a quick, easy accurate way. It doesn’t “entertain” or any of that pretentious bullshit that many spout. Your confusing the feeling of enjoyment with CONTENT. Content is where the real fun is at. An interface is just a tool that delivers enjoyable content. Sure, it can deliver it in an aesthetically pleasing way. But it’s never the user’s focus. The user’s primary focus is on enjoyable content. The interface is just a tool that makes that happen. It’s the means to the end, the medium not the message.

      • Andy Marshall

        Dec 1st, 2011

        Anthony,

        First of all, thanks for publishing my reply to your post. Many moderators shy away from publishing replies with alternative points of view. Your willingness to publish an opposing point of view is refreshing.

        I find it fascinating that you feel it’s a misconception that an interface can be “enjoyable and fun”, and that it’s only through ‘content’ that we can create a feeling of enjoyment (by the term content I’m going to assume you mean the text, video, and imagery relating to the body of a web page, or around navigational or functional elements).

        Where a technology is sufficiently advanced, people naturally define it through human qualities (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropomorphism). With this thinking in mind I would argue an interface doesn’t require content to communicate a personality, and this importantly is what can affect how you feel.

        To pick an analogy to illustrate this, if you look at the following photos of two very different types of car, you’ll see they both convey very different types of personality:
        http://the-car-club.co.uk/Images/Pictures/VW-Beetle-Yellow-600.jpg
        http://t0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQhpQVlGn6Re214ErAI9zq7as4B2JxD_vxUhuiS2uKX5Xz9wVmJlprIiFem

        The Beetle conveys a fun, enjoyable personality – it almost feels like it’s smiling at you. The Humvee on the other hand conveys a strong, perhaps even bullish, or aggressive personality.

        The actual terms you might choose to describe these can be subjective, but they do convey a personality. Yet here there is no ‘content’ here to speak of; we can describe these cars emotionally based on our interpretation of their shape, form, and colour, all of which are their aesthetic attributes.

        That feeling of knowing in an instant whether you like (or trust) a website or not at first glance is not down to the content – it’s an instinct that you get before you’ve even had a chance to read the content.

        And the way a product ‘feels’ when you use it certainly contributes to its personality. To again pick an analogy of a car, the Mini Cooper S received a lot of criticism of its handling when it was launched, yet those who loved it easily overlooked these flaws in the ‘usability’ of the product. To quote the New York Times review:
        “Whatever one may think of the MINI Cooper’s dynamic attributes, which range from very good to marginal, it is fair to say that almost no new vehicle in recent memory has provoked more smiles.”

        Even the way an interface responds, or behaves as you interact with it can convey something of a personality, making you feel positively or negatively about it.

        So I would say it’s not just the content that creates an enjoyable experience. Much of the way people feel about using an interface happens at of the presentation layer, and through their interactions with the interface, and for me this a critical area where great user experiences are defined.

        Andy

        • anthony

          Dec 1st, 2011

          I understand what you are saying. And a lot of what you described are attributes of AESTHETICS. I think it’s as important as you do. But to say that an interface can thrive with aesthetics but no content is like saying the Mini Cooper can run without an engine. The content of the car is what’s under the hood. The functionality is how well all the parts are put together. How useful is a car if it’s just a stylish shell? It’s useless, which is why content is a BASIC NEED in the user experience hierarchy of needs.

      • Nick

        Dec 1st, 2011

        This is ridiculous Anthony.

        If we were beholden to content in order to design enjoyable experiences, 99% of our interactions would suck, because at LEAST 99% of content sucks.

        Interfaces should be delightful to use regardless of their content.

        A hammer is a tool, but there are certainly hammers that are more delightful to use than others, regardless of their delivering the same “content”

        A computer is a tool, but its patterns of interaction either enjoyable or miserable regardless of the “content” it controls.

        A beautifully designed, thoughtful “tool” like a door handle, or a faucet only delivers the “content” of entry and water, but using them can be as or more delightful the service they offer….more importantly, from a holistic p.o.v. these “interfaces” create a proprietary sense of place and message.

        There are interesting, thoughtful, enjoyable, and fun ways to display and interact with paragraphs of text. These designs speak to users, guide their hand while also ceding control.

        And I’m a pragmatist.

        On content heavy sites, there are delightful ways to display and interact with paragraphs of text, and there are miserable ones.

        • anthony

          Dec 1st, 2011

          I love aesthetics and I take it very seriously. But I think you’re knocking content because you clearly don’t understand it. You didn’t even acknowledge what the “content” part is in the hammer, computer, door or faucet. I’ll tell you what the content part is. It’s the materials used to make the tools. Are you going to tell me that “delightfulness” and “fun” is more important than having the materials to even make the tools? I’m a realist. I try to things for what they are, not what I wish or hope them to be.

  6. David Morris

    Nov 30th, 2011

    Great article that brings together a range of disciplines under the heading of user experience design.

    To make these levels even closer to the principles of Maslow’s hierarchy you could refer to the levels as adjectives: functional, informative, aesthetic, and usable

  7. Molly Maple

    Nov 30th, 2011

    Great summary – so many application designers stop with functionality & information – rarely you see that aesthetics have been taken into account. The time spent performing user interface testing can will pay off in the long run.

  8. Steve j

    Nov 30th, 2011

    What about fun? Or the need to be entertained? When I use an interface I want all the things your diagram mentions and I want to feel like the interface wants me to use it and to love it because I enjoy it not because I have to.

  9. Martin

    Nov 30th, 2011

    Personally, I think the Usability and Aesthetic needs could (should?) be flipped. As a designer, observing other designers, the aesthetic tends to take preference over usability. Many people will sacrifice function in deference to form, often to the detriment of the end product. That’s just my opinion, though. Great article!

  10. brad dalrymple

    Dec 2nd, 2011

    Though it has inherent problems, I always like it when people write about Maslow’s hierarchy. Here are a couple of examples where have created more of a direct correlation between Maslow’s hierarchy and UX.

    http://www.slideshare.net/lycerejo/hierarchy-of-user-experience-needs
    and
    http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/04/26/designing-for-a-hierarchy-of-needs/

    The comments in the smashing article are pretty interesting as well.

  11. Rob le Pair

    Dec 2nd, 2011

    Usability or aesthetics on top, I think aesthetics, indeed.
    But there is a bigger mistake: the pyramid and its title ‘User Experience hierarchy of needs’ suggests that if the four needs are fulfilled the user experience is at a high level.
    I don’t agree. There are many websites, web applications and mobile apps that surely fulfill the four needs and at the same time there is no attention at all for the user experience.
    This representation simply ignores user experience. These are only four conditions for good usability. Any claim that these four needs together encompass a great experience misses the essence of what user experience really is.

  12. Z222

    Dec 6th, 2011

    Someone should show this to the BBC regarding their homepage, it used to look like and work like this: http://youtu.be/1axEv7GEUUI

    Now it looks like this: http://www.bbc.co.uk

    And people are not happy. The user baser isn’t happy because it doesn’t do what the old one did, or allow them to locate info quickly enough. The BBC isn’t happy because the user base refuses to accept it is all for their own good and why they just don’t get that management has said it must be applauded.

  13. Tal

    Apr 15th, 2012

    Hi,
    A great post, thank you.
    It does a very good job of simplifying older UX models.

    I believe that another component is missing at the top. The excitement element. See more at my blog at
    http://www.disruptzone.com/ux2012_4.html

    Content should be enjoyable and create excitement as a mean for better loyalty and stronger engagement.

  14. Zaki Wasik

    Apr 19th, 2012

    I agree with Ryan that this is a better representation of the “user experience hierarchy of needs”:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hypercatalecta/5412796141/

    The source by the way is Stephen P. Andersons highly recommendable book “Seductive Interation Design”:

    http://www.amazon.com/Seductive-Interaction-Design-Effective-Experiences/dp/0321725522

    Further, I agree with Rob le Pair that you will only be designing good usability not good user experience with this model. If aesthetics were removed I would argue that this model is exactly the same as the bottom half of Andersons model above, except that he is not being explicit about content.

    On this point, however, I fully agree that having the right content at hand is essential for usability as well as UX, but I see that as being part of the functional requirements in Andersons model.

    I highly suggest reading the chapter in Andersons book throughly – I think he is clearly cracking the nut of good UX design.

  15. @creativecarl

    Jun 12th, 2012

    I totally agree that Functionality and Information are the first key components of any great interface. However after thinking about this more I believe that the tables may have turned on Usability and Aesthetics.
    First of all Aesthetics is completely subjective. What looks awesome to one person is ugly to another. The aim is to know your target user and design for what resonates with them.
    Second of all I believe we are now in a new era where Usability will take a bigger role. We now have multiple devices and platforms to design for, and good apps (web and mobile), more so than websites, are heavily Usability focused. We also now have a lot more options than tabs, pages and dropdown menus.

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