Rachel Folz

People, product, and process pro.

My Product Hierarchy of Needs

A few months back I was in a meeting talking about users and some upcoming enhancements to our product. We were talking about some very cool, high tech, fancy-pants stuff. And it was fly, y’all. Real fly. But something kept nagging at me – where did this fall on our user’s list of needs? A hierarchy, if you will. 

That’s right, people, I’m taking you back to Psych 101, only this time I won’t be wearing Birkenstocks and a hemp necklace with a Pisces sign on it. I’m talking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you need a refresher, don’t worry because the Google’s got you.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a popular motivational theory in psychology, visualized as a pyramid.

The idea is that humans need to satisfy needs lower down in the hierarchy before they can attend to those needs up higher in the pyramid. For example, if you are hungry and cold, you might not have a lot of bandwidth to think about realizing personal potential, ya slacker.

I believe that users are mostly people and while using our products they move through a set of stages, similar to the ones Maslow proposed. They want it to work, they want to get their stuff done, they want to be good at it, they want to be better at their jobs, and they want to be the cool kid who knows about the best thing ever. That’s why I’ve created my personal Product Hierarchy of Needs.

The base of my pyramid of product is uptime. If your product frequently fails, has a lot of downtime during your user’s activity hours, or just crashes, then you aren’t meeting the most basic needs of your users. Fix your face.

The next level is function. If your users are in the function stage, that means they can achieve their basic goals with your product. It could be like middle school – it’s not pretty, easy, or fun, but they’ll make it through. They may dread using your product. They might fight with support, or tell others in their industry how much they hate it, but they can do the thing they came to do. But this is a dangerous place to leave people in. Remember – everyone has competition, even entertainment behemoth Blockbuster video.

Once your user moves out of that stage, they land in capability. Here is where the user begins to feel like a pro of your product. Watching a user fly through tasks in your product with the ease of an Olympic figure skater is one of product work’s all-time best joys. The user has a mastery of your system, even if they don’t love it – like the unlikely friendship of a goat and a duck. 

After capability, wait, I think there was a question from the audience. *listens* Yes, sir, there are two more stages after capability. Being capable isn’t enough when Product Hunt is sending out an email with 20 gee-whiz products every day, vying to eat your product’s Lunchables pizza. As I was saying, the next stage is enhancement. When they are here, your user believes that your product makes them better at what they are trying to do. Your product unleashes great power in enhancement stage users. Because your product does what it does so well, your users know they wouldn’t feel as effective without it. 

And finally, the top of my product pyramid is evangelism. When your users have reached this elevated state of being, not only do they love your product, but they love it so much they want to tell others about it. Like in real life and in LinkedIn groups. It’s that word of mouth advertising the elders speak of. It’s rare air up here, my product pals. Although the goal is lofty, it’s not impossible. We all want to be here – making something worth sharing.

So when you picture your users, where do you think they fall on this hierarchy? What would your product hierarchy of needs look like? Let’s dish.