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Maslow's hierarchy - now for product design

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a popular theory that talks about how our needs move up the pyramid starting off with physiological needs (food, shelter) all the way up to self-actualization. Without satisfying the needs at a level lower on the pyramid, it doesn't make sense to satisfy the needs at a higher level on the pyramid. Try convincing a poor guy who can't afford to buy food for his family to send his ten year old kid to school rather than out to work and you will know what I'm saying.

Product design follows very much the same theory. When something doesn't satisfy a need at a lower level on the pyramid cannot survive even if it satisfies a need higher up the pyramid. Which is why cash-on-delivery is very important in India. People see the need of getting something delivered to their homes as higher up the pyramid than being cheated out of their money.

I would hazard a guess that a lot of products in the market today fall in the functional and reliable category and a lower percentage fall in the usable category while only a handful will fall in the pleasurable category. I wish I had some numbers to quote here, but unfortunately, I don't have the resources of a Gartner to conduct such research. However, here are four product categories that I use extensively that satisfy design needs at each of these levels and no higher.

Telecom Providers (Airtel) - Functional
Airtel (the one I use) is just about functional (and I would guess it is the same with all it's competitors in the telecom space or they wouldn't have the market share that they do have). Yes, it lets me make calls and send messages and use 4G Internet on my phone. But the reliability in all three is questionable at best. There are several instances when I have to ask the person I'm talking to over the phone to repeat things as I can't hear them properly, when calls get dropped, when SMSs don't get delivered on time and when the 4G Internet speeds fall well below expected levels. They suck at being usable as they try to insert promotional messages in every communication they have with me, be it when they tell me how much I was charged for a call or when I call their customer service. 

Internet Banking (SBI) - Reliable
SBI has a sturdy and reliable Internet banking infrastructure that does everything it needs to as expected and has good communication when it doesn't do things as expected. But it stops there. I have used the Internet Banking of Axis Bank as well and that is very similar. But would I call it usable? Probably not. The site is filled with a lot of jargon and doesn't always explain what is what to a lay user. The navigation is designed less in terms of what the user wants to do and more in terms of how the bank itself divides responsibilities for various services internally. There is a lot that can be done to improve the usability in this category.

E-Commerce (Myntra) - Usable
I take the example of Myntra because that's probably what I've used the most, but nearly every e-commerce app/website is in the same ballpark and will fall in the usable category with little variations among them. Myntra has a host of useful features and great navigation and presentation of information. But, I can't really call it pleasurable. My relationship with the app is purely transactional. I was explaining to a friend yesterday what the job of a Product Manager is and here's what I said: 
"It is my job to make the users fall in love with the product and make them hesitate to use an alternative even if that alternative offers something tangibly better."
And there's no app/website in the E-commerce space that induces such loyalty today.

? (Medium/Duolingo/Runkeeper) - Pleasurable
I've already described what makes a product pleasurable in my explanation to my friend above. It is not possible to put down what makes a product pleasurable. It is just an experience. It is binary. There is no logical evaluation of this. Either a user feels it or she doesn't. And that's why I have a question mark for the category. Because I don't think any category has multiple pleasurable products that are all more or less similar (like in the previous three cases). But three of the apps that I use fall in this category. Medium for it's simplistic interface that makes me want to read more (I have since started publishing what I write on Medium as well as my own blog). Duolingo for making it so simple to get the basics of a new language. I can converse in basic Spanish and can understand more than I can speak after a few months on Duolingo. The 5-minute lessons and gamification really add to the design. And Runkeeper for doing a no-nonsense job of tracking every activity that you wish. The icing was integrating with your local music player from within the app.

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