‘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.

Hierachy of feeds

I’ve gotten into a bad habbit. Recently, I’ve found myself only wanting to write about topics when I can think of a good headline. Which reminds me, a new high-watermark was set by a genius in the copy-editing team at the Sun this week. A front-page banner headline relating the Jacqui Smith expenses furore (over her husband claiming for some dodgy movies on a hotel bill) reads ‘The Porn Ultimatum’. The Sun has always had great headline writers (e.g. two previous corkers associated with the John Darwin story: ‘Canoe accompany us to the station’ and ‘The liar, the witch and the wardrobe’) but I thought this was real ‘stunna’.

Anyhow, I digress. And in fact, today’s headline is acutally more of a polish than an invention. The Innovations Diaries’ post is called ‘Hieracy of Tweets’, and it came along just as I was thinking about precisely the same issue: what have a 1940s psychologist and a 21 century microblogging service got in common?

What Innovation Diaries were talking about is the psychology of twittering.  If we look at the bizarre range of stuff that comes up on the trendy microblogging site, it maps across base human desires and needs – hunger, tiredness etc – through higher-order needs such as love and belonging to the grandly named ‘self-actualisation’, relating directly to the concepts to Maslow’s famous hierachy of needs.



This connection is a very interesting one, although I think there’s actually more juice to it than you might get from the examples given in the diagram or in the post.

At the base of it, the needs themselves are real. It is not enough to talk about eating cake – people must actually eat it. Twitter’s not a lot of use for that (although let’s not rule it out: ‘CAKEIFY: just twitter with #blackforrestgateaux…’), but it can be of help at the other end of the spectrum where we’re talking about morality, creativity and problem soliving. So we can think about how people can directly meet the ‘esteem’ need or the ‘self-actualisation’ need through twitter rather than just reflect upon it.

This is an approach to planning and design in digital which we’ve been talking about for a while now, and there are some good examples of it in the wild. In a very real sense, people who are generating content for places like YouTube, or doing work with mashups in technology are squarely exercising their right to self-actualise (and, isn’t that a charmless phrase).

It’s also worth noting (as Innovation Diaries do), that not all of the base instincts are strictly physical, psyiological needs.  We’ve talked here in the past about Intermittent Variable Reinforcement, the addictive property which comes from plugging yourself into a unpredicatable but constant stream of updates. Modern relationships are moving towards placing a hugely increased value on ‘ambient intimacy’ in the emotional rhomboid.

People like Forrester talk about a ‘ladder of participation‘ for social media Just like the government and parents think cannabis leads to harder drug use, the analysts believe that the internet people are weaned on a diet of commenting and rating, before eventually picking up blogging and twittering. Certainly we know from building sites and things that participation does seem to drop off in accordance with required sophistication and effort.

To mix metaphors, Twitter has arrived on the ladder at an odd time. Or perhaps blogs did. I’m certainly not saying that Twitter is low-brow, although it can be. But it requires a weird mix of low involvement and high sophistication. Twitter may be the new black, or the second coming of the messiah, but its use would appear ‘lower’ down our hierachy of needs than many more expressive and creative formats. If the conservative party weren’t so busy jumping on bandwagons, or the Daily Mail knew what it was, they’d both be criticizing it for ‘dumbing down’ social media.

A revolution that started with the highest of brows (endless blogs about politics, philosophy, (marketing) and (ahem) blogs) appears to be descending towards our more reptilian insticts.

I think the reason is that Twitter has no antecedant at all. Blogs are like articles, Facebook is like an address book (or facebook), Myspace is the teenager’s bedroom wall. But we’ve had nothing like twitter before.Were any of us taught at school to communicate in single thoughts?

Hopefully with mainstreaming of Twitter will come a rebirth of blogs and other, richer social media – a chance to get people thinking about more than one idea at time, and in more depth.

You can’t say that in 140 characters.