Elsbernd's Hierarchy of Needs


A constant among psychology and instructional design classes is Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Whether you agree with the criticisms of Wahba and Bridgewell or not, Maslow's theory still provides a valuable framework for describing and evaluating individual motivations.  The notions of hierarchical needs wherein one set of needs must be satisfied before the next set can be prioritized can be applied to system design as well, and is described by the blatant ripoff, er, homage, Elsbernd's Hierarcy of System Needs.

What do you want in a system?  The answer depends on what you need to do and how you are accomplishing that goal currently.  In the early days functionality was enough as long as the system allowed you to do something you couldn't do before, users would suffer through horribly obscure and arcane coding to complete their tasks.  Witness the costs, time and effort involved in old punchcard computers, yet because it allowed them to do something new, companies endured it.

For a time, functionality is added, but functionality eventually loses it's glow.  When users are forced to wait while systems are down or slow, system developers are tasked with making it faster and more powerful. The need for performance comes to the top of the priority list.

At some point in the system's evolution, a sufficient level of functionality and performance is reached, and the next competitive advantage becomes usability.  The ability for users to complete tasks with a minimum of training and in various contexts becomes a selling point when all functionality sets are comparable.  Ease of learning and ease of use allows less skilled workers to complete tasks, or skilled workers to focus less on the system and more on their work.

Aesthetics is the final enhancement, in that if the system is usable, it can also be enjoyable or pleasant to use.  Aesthetic features, such as enhanced graphics, animations, sound, layout and balance on the page all impact the user experience.

Of course, all of these features exist to some extent in every system.  The balance between these four factors is what can make or break system success, based on the hierarchy of system needs.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is often depicted as a pyramid consisting of five levels: the four lower levels are grouped together as being associated with physiological needs, while the top level is termed growth needs associated with psychological needs. Deficiency needs must be met first. Once these are met, seeking to satisfy growth needs drives personal growth. The higher needs in this hierarchy only come into focus when the lower needs in the pyramid are satisfied. Once an individual has moved upwards to the next level, needs in the lower level will no longer be prioritized. If a lower set of needs is no longer being met, the individual will temporarily re-prioritize those needs by focusing attention on the unfulfilled needs, but will not permanently regress to the lower level. For instance, a businessman (at the esteem level) who is diagnosed with cancer will spend a great deal of time concentrating on his health (physiological needs), but will continue to value his work performance (esteem needs) and will likely return to work during periods of remission.

Elsbernd's Hierarchy of System Needs

Elsbernd's hierarchy

A similar model is proposed for the evolution of software development.

Deficiency needs - These needs are required for success, but as soon as the needs are met, they are taken for granted.  Their absence causes dissatisfaction, but otherwise they are invisible to the common user.

Growth Needs - These needs are not strictly required for task completion, but they improve the user experience to build loyalty and positive perceptions of the system and tasks.  This delight can improve satisfaction, retention and morale among users.

Usability - Usability makes the system accessible to a wider group of users.  Whereas early word processing and desktop publishing tools were only used by trained users in specialized departments, now everyone has one of these tools on their desks due to improved user models built into the systems and integration with their other tasks.  The systems are more intuitive through the use of common ui conventions and affordances (the design of the system controls suggests their use).

Aesthetics -  People like well-designed systems.  Attractive systems are perceived as faster, better performing and more effective than unattractive systems.

Just as in Maslow's Hierarchy, systems develop from the bottom of the hierarchy up.  The higher needs in this hierarchy only come into focus when the lower needs in the pyramid are satisfied. If a change in process or product causes one of the lower needs to become unfulfilled because the current system can no longer meet the needs, the functionality or performance needs will be reprioritized over usability or aesthetics until functionality and performance are restored.

The final factor not represented in the current document is cost.  Cost is a limiting factor of how much time and effort is expended getting to higher levels, to achieve and maintain the level of satisfaction or delight demanded by the users.  Organizations must determine the cost of achieving the next level and the competitive advantage it will bring.