A Product Hierarchy of Needs

Most people are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Basically, his premise was that people had to focus on their most basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) before they could aspire to more abstract concepts such as self actualisation.

Products are much the same.  There is some basic level of feature set that’s needed to deliver some value to the customer (I’m shying away from calling this an “MVP” level because of all the confusion around and frankly better alternatives to the MVP concept).  Features that are added to this (hopefully) make customers happier, but probably in more abstract ways.

Take YouTube as a case in point.  YouTube’s fundamental features were to allow users to upload videos, view video content and make videos findable.  But, they’ve layered a lot of functionality on top of those basic functions.  The next level up might be considered to consist of ads, comments, user favouriting of videos, playlists and subscriptions.  Above that would be intelligent suggestions of videos you might like, linking videos together and so on.  As a user, you might like or actively want all of the features YouTube now offers.  But, fundamentally, it’s about sharing and watching videos.  Everything else is extra.

Netflix is another example.  Netflix started out by actually posting DVDs out to customers as a kind of virtual DVD rental company.  From a hierarchy perspective, Netflix was literally about delivering video content to users in their home.  From there, they went digital and moved from showing other people’s videos to creating their own content.  A key early feature for Netflix was a quick and easy boarding process that allowed users to move seamlessly between devices.  Start watching a movie on your TV and finish watching it on your phone.  They also embedded personalisation early on into their platform with the who’s viewing feature with a kids option always at the ready.  Other, less critical features such as the ability to rank movies and Netflix’s suggestions of things you might enjoy watching were added and have been refined repeatedly.

Too many products lose sight of the core, critical thing the user wants from their service.  Facebook is all about keeping up with your friends and family.  Their attempts to integrate shopping have never really caught on.  And, the recent controversy around “fake news” and election manipulation has shown how trying to be too clever with “content you might like” can backfire in unexpected ways.

I’ve come to personally believe that the best products are like Scandinavian furniture:  they should be so well crafted and stripped back to their bare essentials that the user can quickly and easily do that one core thing they want without any clutter.  Anything added on top of that must accentuate the core and not block the user from doing what they came for.  Being too clever or trying to layer on unrelated functionality simply detracts.

We see this all the time with products that are simply trying too hard.  Cars often do this by adding so many knobs and buttons that they actually run out of symbols to meaningfully communicate what the control does.  Have you ever rented a car and turned on the windscreen wipers accidentally, then struggled to figure out how to turn them off again?  Or, have you used someone else’s microwave and couldn’t do something simply like cook popcorn or boil water?  Those are devices that have managed to obscure their core feature beneath a hierarchy of less important features.


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