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Digital Product Management: Analyzing and Prioritizing Enhancements for Website and Mobile App Design

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  1. Maslow's hierarchy of human needs
  2. The Kano Model
  3. Summary
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This chapter will help you think about priorities that make sense and then set up a structure that will enable you to stick to them. This chapter focuses on two frameworks for analyzing priorities: Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and the Kano Model.
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Chapter 3 explained how to write user stories about new product features or ways to enhance existing products. If your product team spends time doing this and accumulates a list of user stories for enhancing a product, you’ll end up with a backlog of ideas.

Defining a bunch of issues to solve begets yet another problem: How do you decide what to work on? Unless you’re in a very unusual situation, you have limited time and budget. There are only so many hours in a day, and only so many people to work on design and development.

Of course, one of the most difficult things in life is prioritizing. It’s just a universal problem, isn’t it? If you haven’t done this well, it seems you’re always making excuses and apologizing.

  • “Sorry, I don’t have time!”
  • “I’d love to help you with that, but I just don’t think I’ll be able to.”
  • “Argh, I’m too busy!”
  • “What do you mean I need to get that done by next week? I’m already booked up! THERE’S NO WAY I’M GETTING THAT DONE BY NEXT WEEK!”

While you can’t add days to the week, you can learn to manage your time more effectively. This chapter will help you think about priorities that make sense and then set up a structure that will enable you to stick to them.

Once you have a structure and prioritization habits that you can trust, there will be fewer apologies. And if you do still have to apologize occasionally for not getting everything done, you’ll have clear reasons to give for why other tasks took priority, and this will hopefully cause less anguish and stress. You’ll be more confident in setting and meeting user story priorities, and letting other things fall to the wayside or deferring them until later.

So let’s see what this looks like! We’ll focus on two frameworks for analyzing priorities: Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and the Kano Model.

Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs

Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) was an American psychologist (Figure 4.1). In 1943, he wrote an article for a professional journal, Psychological Review, called “A Theory of Human Motivation.” I remember first learning about Maslow and his theory in college, thinking that a hierarchy of needs seemed quite logical. And after getting into product management work, I think it’s an even more powerful idea. So let’s spend some time going over his theory and how it applies to product work.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 Psychologist Abraham Maslow was best known for his theory about the hierarchy of human needs.

Maslow’s career itself represents a way of working that creative and technical people should learn from. His theories and research were not just extensions of ideas and work of colleagues whom he agreed with. Rather, Maslow questioned the status quo of psychology and developed alternate understandings of how people work and why they do what they do.

Sound familiar? It’s kind of the basis of product management: seeking a greater understanding of people and then aligning your work with that understanding, rather than going with generally accepted practices and broad, industry-wide understandings. The best creative and technical solutions are the result of asking hard questions, digging deeply, and finding new answers that can lead to new ideas—answers for specific, real customers, not just answers that align with general trends that may or may not align with your specific market.

Maslow’s work provides a useful way to think about how people function and, especially, what distinguishes humans from other species. Essentially, what makes humans unique is our capacity for self-determination and our ability to work through priorities. Humans make choices about a lot of things, and Maslow believes there’s a system or hierarchy to how we make these choices.

Understanding this hierarchy can help you better meet people’s expectations with your products.

Here are the five levels of human needs that Maslow identified (Figure 4.2):

  1. Physiological needs: Our basic needs include respiration, food, water, rest, getting rid of waste, and reproduction. Without these basics, we can’t survive as individuals, nor could we carry on as a species.
  2. Safety needs: These needs include bodily security, moral security, and mental security. If you’re hungry and have food, you’ll eat and take care of that immediate need. But then how do you get more food for tomorrow? Your next meal becomes a bodily security issue.
  3. Social needs: These needs are about emotional stability and happiness. They include friendship, family, and intimacy.
  4. Esteem needs: These needs involve broader external acceptance that leads to greater self-esteem and confidence. You might be well fed, know where your next meal is coming from, and feel happy and loved. But until you’re secure and confident in your education and employment, for example, your happiness is limited to a fairly small sphere of existence. Esteem gives you the confidence to live outside your comfort zone.
  5. Self-actualizing needs: These high-level needs—such as morality, creativity, and problem solving—are what distinguish us from other species. Some people succeed in these areas more than others, and because of this we have a broader spectrum of humanity: good people, bad people, people with vision who can make the world better, and people who are shortsighted and selfish.

    Figure 4.2

    Figure 4.2 Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Basic needs—those essential for survival—are at the bottom. Higher-level needs are at the top.

You have to meet the needs at the lowest level before you can advance to the higher levels. It’s hard to satisfy broader security concerns if you’re not breathing, eating, and otherwise healthy!

There’s a lot of analysis we could get into at this point. For example, why do good people sometimes do bad things? I think Maslow’s theory actually speaks to this. Most of us would never steal from others in a normal situation, because we have enough security in our lives to know where we’ll be getting the things we need to survive from day to day. But seeing this hierarchy of needs explains why good people could be forced to steal if their circumstances were bad enough. This is why looting sometimes happens in times of war or civil unrest: The normal order of things is upset, and people can devolve a bit in order to survive.

How Maslow’s hierarchy of needs applies to product design and development, however, is where it gets really interesting for us.

Product-level hierarchies

Consider how digital products dovetail with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For example, why is Google one of the most-visited websites in the world? The hierarchy of human needs tells us why: Google can help us meet many of our needs, even fundamental ones. We use it to find food, to get answers to our health care questions, and to buy diapers.

We even use sites like to help us find lifelong partners with whom, should it interest us, we can start a family!

So it’s little wonder that Google and other search engines have become ubiquitous in the developed world. People would be pretty lost these days without them, especially on their mobile devices. Sure, there are tons of apps out there, and we frequently download new ones, but often we’ll give them a try once or twice then stop using them because they fail to meet our fundamental needs. But have you ever heard of anyone saying, “Yeah, I got tired of some of my apps and got rid of a few, and I decided to give up using search this time. Who needs it?”

Uh, no. No one has ever said that. Ever.

After search, online banking websites and mobile apps are probably among the most-used digital products. Why? Because they help us meet our safety needs—they enable us to get paid and, in turn, to pay the bills for goods and services that keep us safe, secure, and comfortable.

Think about where your current websites or mobile apps fit into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Do they support the base of the pyramid, a higher but less critical level of needs, or a range of needs? Knowing this should help you set expectations for use and satisfaction.

Similarly, if you’re assessing a new product opportunity for a client or trying to discern what kind of site or app to design on your own, determine what type of needs it could meet. Could it satisfy fundamental needs or higher-level needs? Could it be used by a broad range of users or just a niche?

Attribute-level hierarchies

There’s a more nuanced way to look at hierarchies of needs: looking at specific product attributes, features, or capabilities. What does this type of analysis look like?

After Maslow’s theory caught my attention and I saw how relevant it was to product management in general, I started thinking about how I could modify it specifically for online products. What are the online equivalents of our physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualizing needs?

I came up with my own version of Maslow’s hierarchy, applying it to mobile user experiences (Figure 4.3):

  1. Physiological needs: When making the web work on a mobile device, the physiological equivalent of breathing and eating is seeing and navigating. In other words, nothing else really matters until you can see it and go from one part of it to another. These are the most basic aspects of online content.
  2. Safety needs: These needs are related to repeated or sustained activity. Eating is great, but where’s your next meal coming from? Seeing and navigating is one thing, but reading is another. Reading is a deeper, more sustained activity that involves the most pervasive form of online content: text. Seeing text is a good start, but having it sized, scaled, and formatted in a way that makes it clearly legible is even better.
  3. Social needs: These needs include engagement with content through responding and sharing. Not surprisingly, the web excels at both with elements like forms and social media. As you prioritize web optimization for mobile, solve visibility first, readability next, and then make sure that people are able to respond and share with mobile-friendly forms and social media connections.

    Figure 4.3

    Figure 4.3 My theory of mobile motivation. Like Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, it illustrates that there are basic needs to meet in mobile user experience before higher needs can be met. This isn’t specific to mobile user experience; people accessing content and interactions in desktop or tablet browsers have the same needs.

  4. Esteem needs: On the web, one of the best sources of confidence and trust is performance. How many of us have experienced a site or service that is designed well but plagued by downtime or sluggish performance? (Remember Twitter’s infamous “fail whale”?) It can be very discouraging to see a site with a great, practical design, but then be let down by the service being sporadic or unavailable. It not only cheapens the site, it makes you feel unimportant as well. And this feeling isn’t trivial; if a reliable website or app can empower you to do something better or faster, it should come as no surprise that something you can’t trust can make you feel powerless and insignificant.
  5. Self-actualizing needs: The final tier of needs for digital products can be summed up with one word: joy. And for a great example of this, we need look no further than the first iPhone. Phone calls, texting, maps, e-mail, cameras, and the web already existed, of course, but the iPhone combined them in one device in a truly elegant and pain-free way. Apple later added an app store to enable people to design nearly anything else that they wished. In short, the iPhone created joy—not a fleeting, giddy feeling of happiness, but rather an enduring level of product satisfaction that has made it the best-selling phone (and camera) ever.

I like how this hierarchy of web and mobile needs works out. And my friend Brad Frost liked it, too. He boiled it down into the simple diagram shown in Figure 4.4.

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4 Brad Frost’s diagram of mobile needs: access, interact, perform, enhance.

What I like most about his interpretation is that it shows that the hierarchy is flexible. And that’s kind of the point. As long as your priorities are based on customer needs and market problems, your approach to websites and mobile apps can vary slightly. Just make sure that you’re careful when you prioritize, and structure the needs in a way that enables you to meet essential ones first, then others later.

This brings us to the Kano Model, a systematic way to think about any product attribute and place it in proper perspective.

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