Tag Archives: hierarchy of needs

The obesity epidemic, Evolutionary Psychology, and product success

The world economy is stagnating.  Many traditional industries like manufacturing, housing, and construction, which brought world prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries, are in miserable decline.  Yet, there is a bright spot and it is innovation and, more specifically, software product innovation in the context of the internet and cloud computing.

Software as a Service is growing fast, mobile application development is exploding.  One successful website like Pinterest, for example, spawns a multitude of copycats.  So how is one to pick from all those new and innovative products and services out there?

The two main questions before any successful innovation are:

1. Why should I, the consumer, choose to use this product and part with some of my hard-earned money in the process?  The alternative is not using it at all.

2. Why should I pick this product among all similar products out there?

These questions have been the domain of Marketing and, more recently, Behavioral Economics.  Those two fields are built around persuading consumers to use products and services and to choose one product or service over all the rest.  They highlight the value of products.  They re-frame the value of products.  They also invent the value of products.

Here I want to talk about a more foundational field, a field that has provided some basic axioms about human behavior that have been adopted by Marketing and by Behavioral Economics, among others.  This field is Evolutionary Psychology.

Very simplistically defined, Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is a discipline which explains why human psyche and behavior have developed to be the way they are.  The central tenet of EP is that human behaviors and psychological traits which exist today were the ones that made us more fit to survive and pass on our genes tens of thousands of years ago, in the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness.”

How can this piece of information be helpful in everyday conversation as well in business discussions?  Next time someone claims that a behavior is innate, inborn, or “natural” ask the question: How was that behavior helping our ancestors survive 12,000 years ago?  We are naturally afraid of the dark because 12,000 years ago there were many dangerous things lurking in the dark.  Those humans that were not afraid of the dark, did not heed the dangers, strolled carelessly into the dark, met one of those nasty lurking things and perished thus not passing on the “not afraid of the dark” gene.  Those that carried the “afraid of the dark” gene were more likely to survive and pass it on to their offspring.  In contrast, people are NOT naturally afraid of guns simply because guns did not exist 12,000 years ago when our brain wiring was being formed.  That logic also explains why there are spider phobias and there are no phobias of car doors, although there is a much higher chance of accidentally smashing one’s thumb while closing the car door than being accidentally bit by a spider.

So what does this all have to do with software product success, let alone with the obesity epidemic?


We can find striking and telling examples in the food and beverage industries.  These industries do not have to convince consumers to eat sweet, fatty, and salty things.  This is because humans are drawn to those substances.  The Evolutionary Psychology explanation is that back when our needs and wants were being hard wired in our brains, sweet and fatty foods were very rare and at the same time were essential for survival (providing energy).  People who craved those foods and sought them out had a better chance of surviving and passing on the “sweet tooth” gene.  Same is true for salt – a rare substance at the time that is essential for our body’s internal balance.

Fast forward 12,000 years and we have the food and beverage industries understanding these basic human cravings and using them to make profits.  In present time, the combination of those inborn human cravings and the abundance of substances that were once rare leads to weight gain, obesity, and the hosts of health, social, and economic problems that come with those.  Now there are movements that are trying to have people STOP overusing products high in sugar, fat, and salt.  Wouldn’t that be the dream of any business person – to have consumers be addicted to their products?  Here the problem becomes one of differentiation – why should I pick your chocolate bar over the 101 other chocolate bars on the shelf before me?

The author of the Hierarchy of Needs, Abraham Maslow, understood Evolutionary Psychology very well.  In his famous pyramid:

  • The most basic physiological needs tied to survival are at the base. Those include, among others, food, sleep, sex, and homeostasis.  It becomes pretty obvious why the notorious marketing cliche “sex sells’ is so true, along with “sugar sells”, “butter sells”, and “salt sells.”  Any product that satisfies those needs will ALWAYS have powerful appeal to consumers as human beings.
  • The next level of the pyramid is about safety, which includes security of body, family, health, employment, resources, property, and so on.  Products and services associated with these needs are guaranteed to generate a lot of unending demand.
  • The next level is about belonging: friendship, family, intimacy.  Have you wondered why Facebook is so successful?
  • The next level is about esteem: self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of and by others.  At this point, it stars getting tougher to connect products and services to the needs – not impossible, just more positioning and messaging work.  It is also a taller order to invent new products and services that meet those needs.  Maybe productivity software, for example, falls in this category.
  • The highest level is about self-actualization … and who the heck knows what this means 🙂

Hopefully this post have provided some food for product innovation and marketing thought.

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Defining “Experience” – Part 2

In the previous post, I discussed the dictionary definition of the word “experience” and offered my own definitions for the phrases “customer experience” and “good customer experience.”  Now, let’s talk about a much more important and practically relevant definition of customer experience – the operational definition.  That is, how are we going to measure experience?  We need an operational definition here because “experience” is not a physical object or property that can be perceived and measured directly.  Unlike temperature, which we can perceive directly through our senses and have devices for measuring directly (thermometers), “experience” is a concept, a construct, or more simply put, an idea.  As such, we need to all agree on valid and reliable ways of measuring it.

Before we get to that point, however, we need to address another fundamental question – when it comes to “experience”, are we talking about a single property, aspect, dimension?  I submit that we are indeed not!

Customer experience is a complex, multidimensional concept and anyone who says the opposite runs into the possibility of sounding like one of the cast of characters of the Blind Men and the Elephant fable:

The gist of the story is the following.  A group of blind dudes were tasked with describing what an elephant is.  Each man touched only one part of the elephant.  Then they reported to the group their definition of what an elephant is …

After each one presented his vase as to what an elephant is, there was no agreement:

– For the one who felt the trunk, an elephant was a snake

– For the one that felt the tusk – a spear

– …. a fan

– … a wall

– … a tree

– … rope

Needless to say, they were all confused and not too productive …  We do not really want to be in the same position when it comes to defining “customer experience.”  If one person defines experience as the intent to recommend a product or service (Net Promoter Score), another defines it as usability or ease of use, another as “perceived value”, etc. things can get messy pretty quickly.  The results will be an uninformed approach to measuring this key business metric, lack of reliable and valid data, and ultimately lack of the desired business results.

Now that we have established that “customer experience” is a multidimensional construct, what are the dimensions.  Do we just pick some out of this air?  Nope – here we are lucky to have a well-researched, validate and widely accepted model from Psychology – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

Following Maslow’s model, I am offering this visualization of the structure of customer experience:

If we make the analogy between a product or service and a person (in Maslow’s model), we can see how the model is applicable to the topic at hand.  If a product/service does not satisfy a customer need, it will not survive long in the marketplace – just like a human’s chance of survival are limited if her most basic physiological needs of food, water, sleep, etc. are not met.  In the marketplace, big companies with deep pockets can keep a useless product on life support through expensive marketing means for quite a while, but this is mere survival and not thriving.

If the product/service addresses a customer need, the next question is: What is the experience like?  Does it just meet expectations by working as promised and being easy and intuitive to use?  If yes, this corresponds to the middle three layers of Maslow’s hierarchy.  Through longer-terms use, if the need is persistent and the product performance is acceptable, a usage habit can develop which can increase the product’s Lifetime Customer Value.  That is, people will purchase it year over year or will keep subscribing to the service.

And finally, if the product or service goes above and beyond customers’ expectations, it will generate strong positive emotions resulting in loyalty and positive word-of-mouth.  An experience like that results in customers spontaneously saying “Wow that was so good!”  The next day, around the water cooler, they will recommend the product to their friends and colleagues.

All of the above are, of course, hypotheses based on research from the field of Psychology and years of practical industry experience.  These hypotheses need to be tested, both with the rigor of academia, and the pragmatism of the business world.

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