‘Needs’ is a brilliant word. Five letters long and yet it means so many different things to so many different people; can encompass a huge range of planning challenges and can, perhaps, lead us to some interesting thinking about how to make things people really love, and to communicate things in a way which will really captivate.

The starting point for this discussion must surely be Maslow. In creating a classification of the natural order of human needs, he helped the expansion of the concept of need beyond the purely physical and into a somewhat grey area between needs and wants. Of course, he is also responsible for the concept of a hierarchy among needs with some being of a higher order than others, whether that has pejorative implications or not.

Humans are physical, but also emotional, social, ambitious and so on. And if ‘needs’ are to include all of these factors (which surely it must), then they will encompass every aspect that could be important to us in creating a product or communications which has some resonance with our customer. And of course, needs must be personal, so we will necessarily have to try and understand what needs are commonly shared.

In user experience, we may use ‘needs’ to codify user requirements. But this can be layered. If we’re designing an interface, we need to know which tasks or functions a user needs to be able to carry out – e.g. I need to be able to update my address details. All users also face straight-forward usability needs. However, in thinking about the broader concept of the product, we need to consider emotional needs in addition to the functional needs of the user. How can the product resonate on an emotional level, as well as a functional one.

Here there are two concept which may well be very useful. The first is the idea that emotional response can be classified and codified. Here the work of Plutchick seems very relevant. In classifying the emotions, exhaustively, Plutchick raises and interesting question. What is the emotional reaction that we are looking to achieve and how does the product foster that emotion or suppress its opposite. Does the product in question look to surprise or reassure, to reduce frustration or drive trust?

However, it seems reasonable to suggest that such an emotional resonance can only be properly described in context: What is surprising or fear-inducing in the light-snack market is presumably different from the mobile phone market.

And can we extend this to include the ability of a product (or communication) to offset an emotional reaction that already exists to some other object – i.e. where the emotional response is in the problem the product or communication looks to resolve?

The second framework which is quite powerful here is the concept of the derivation of emotional response. So, in choosing the right shirt for a night out, this is related to the need to impress the opposite sex, from the need to continue the species and ultimately (perhaps in all cases!) the fear of death.  I’ve tried to discuss this briefly before. I’m still convinced there is value in this. If we can understand how an emotional response is driven, we can better understand how to respond to it. After, all, if your product can’t be traced back to a real underlying human need (or multiple needs) of this sort (and here perhaps we’d be less keen on a Maslow style hierachy), then what use is it?

In this post, Northern Planner discusses his fundamental planning beliefs. One of them  is that:

Behind every business problem is a very human behavioural problem you need to change. The art of strategy is making people care enough to behave differently

When they don’t want to be sold to anymore, if they ever did, we need to start with what they’re interested in and work back from there. Real problems and tensions in real lives

Good quote, (and the reason I started writing this post). I agree entirely, apart perhaps from describing the behaviour in question as a behavioural ‘problem’. It seems to me, it’s only  a ‘problem’ from the point of view of the business being discussed. From the user’s point of view, it’s just a behavior.

Perhaps there’s little new in directing our strategies to meeting needs, but I suspect we can all benefit from being more curious in how we dissect that need in the first place.

UPDATE. I had originally meant to kick off this post with the following video. Genius, speaks for itself etc. etc.