issue #4 – user needs are too shallow for innovation

lake tahoe from sand harbor, with boulders clearly visible in the shallow water

The user experience field is using the word needs in a different way than a sociologist might. In UX, it’s phrased as a statement like this: “As a car owner, I need to pay my car registration so I can out an updated sticker on my car.” In sociology, human needs appear as more intrinsic requirements such as the Max-Neef list* or Maslow’s hierarchy.

The way the word “need” is used in the UX statement has been twisted around. It’s the organization that needs the car owner to pay the registration. The car owner’s underlying need is to avoid paying fines for an out-of-date registration, to stay out of jail, and even more importantly, to participate with other drivers in the common accord that makes the act of driving safer. The trouble is that organizations seldom think about these sociological needs–which are what define a person’s problem-space.

wants and needs are defined as "goods and services someone imagines will help achieve their intent or purpose"

It’s these deeper sociological or problem-facing needs that have the potential to really change what your organization does to support people. When you look at the world through the lens of your organization’s intentions, you only see things that relate to you. But people aren’t thinking about your organization, at least not every minute of the day like you do. People are just trying to get things done, or trying to take a break, or trying to feel like they’re part of something. They have their own agenda, and they are making complex decisions and behaving according to their personalities without you. And it’s this inner, human, individual landscape that is the source of bigger insights than you’ve ever encountered before–especially when they form strong patterns among the people that you hope to support. So venture out of the shallows into the complex depths. It’s not as difficult as you might think.

The Max-Neef list of needs:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

  • physiological
  • safety
  • love/belonging
  • esteem
  • self-actualization

What has caused organizations to stay at the shallow level? In the past, software was created either because someone was trying to see if they could “get this idea to work,” or as the result of a formal process involving marketing requirements and functional specifications. These great big documents were difficult to create and even more difficult to follow–leading to arguments and “that’s just how it will be” conclusions. And it was always hurried, to beat the competition. These conditions left little time for truly examining the underlying reasons for making the software.

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