Ethics and Aesthetics: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
In our previous post in our Ethics and Aesthetics series we examined affordance theory and the ways that potential actions shape the way we view the world. In 1943 psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation” containing a now-famous paradigm: the hierarchy of needs. The pyramidal hierarchy outlines basic human needs and desires. It states that human beings must have their basic physiological and safety needs met before they can seek out higher-level needs such as love, self-esteem, and creativity. There is an analogous pyramid relating to design. These five key levels correspond to those of Maslow’s:
(*) Functionality – This is the most basic tier of the pyramid. At the very least, a design needs to serve its function. For LawRoom, this means that at the minimum, our courses need to convey information. Each course begins with a series of discussions between instructional writers and subject matter experts on what the course needs to communicate. If our designs stopped here, users would receive a giant block of text to read. Designs at this level are considered low-value.
(*) Reliability – The next tier is consistency. Our courses must meet a minimum standard of performance. If a course crashed every time a user tried to do something, it would be frustrating to use, and therefore not particularly useful. Our talented team of programmers ensure that every element in our courses works dependably.
(*) Usability – Next, designs need to be easy and forgiving to use. Interface designers ensure that our courses are intuitive and behave the way you would expect them to. For example, the navigation buttons are where you’d expect them to be, and a button with an “X” on it closes a window instead of opening a new one. Designs at this level are considered to be of moderate value. They’ll allow you to do what you need to, but nothing more.
(*) Proficiency – At this stage, our courses empower our users to do things better than they did previously. Our robust LMS allows administrators to keep track of vast amounts of data on their users. The LMS stores only the data you allow it to, and has the ability to automatically propagate it throughout our suite of courses to drastically cut down on administrative tasks. Designs at this level are considered to be of high value, and tend to be incorporated into the user’s life in a meaningful way.
(*) Creativity – The very top level of the hierarchy allows users to interact with the design in innovative ways. Designs at this level tend to inspire cult-like fandom, and can affect the direction of culture and history. Hartmut Esslinger’s streamlined, elegant designs for Apple changed the way we interact with personal technology, and found homes in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum and MoMA. Our reports allow university administrators to observe trends over time, and develop programming to address specific needs and issues. Our goal is to effect sustainable social change, and that goal sits at the very top of the design needs pyramid.
As critics of Maslow as well as Maslow himself have pointed out, these levels aren’t always fulfilled in order, nor are they strictly separate. Certain needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, like love, can supersede even physiological needs like food. In a classic study about the power of tenderness and motivation, psychologist Harry Harlow showed how baby monkeys overwhelmingly prefer cuddly terry-cloth surrogate mothers that don’t have food to wire mothers that have milk. Likewise, there may be cases when technical design sacrifices a certain amount of usability in order to induce the user to learn a complicated interface that affords a high degree of control–this is the case for many powerful editing softwares. Or, an innovative design may give up the familiarity implied in usability in order to communicate a new conceptual paradigm. Regardless, Maslow states that if lower-order needs are not met while fulfilling higher-order needs, it introduces instability in the system. People who are starving can still love fiercely, but cannot do so for long. So while our designs aim to affect our users at the highest level, much of our day-to-day efforts go into ensuring that the lower-level needs are being sufficiently met.