If Maslow Were a Product Manager

If you aren’t familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, check that out first. We’ll be here when you get back…

All right! So that model applies to human scenarios in general, and indeed to managing work and work relationships.

What about product development? What hierarchy of needs exists that will inform our priorities so that we can create products in a sensible and sustainable way? This post is my first pass at answering that question. I was able to isolate four levels that need to be addressed. Note that these needs exist at the user or persona level; meeting the needs of one type of user at a given point in the hierarchy may not do so for another type of user.

Just as with Maslow’s hierarchy, different parts of one product can embody different levels. Also, the effects are cross-cutting — add too many features or a poorly-executed one, and you can damage usability or safety of existing features.

Safety

Most fundamentally, we need to ensure that our products don’t harm our users. Do we protect them from fraud and theft in connection with the product? Are they subject to abuse or privacy invasion by our company or other users while using our product? Do we expose them to undue government surveillance?

Ensuring safety requires core skills and knowledge on the development team, such as how to build secure web services and protect sensitive data, as well as policies and personnel for preventing and responding to abuse. Team diversity is a key asset in facilitating the discovery of safety concerns, as well as the next level.

Usability

A great idea will not make a great product if people can’t use it. Can our product be consumed by screen readers? Can people with limited dexterity use it? Have we supported the languages our users need? How does the product respond to adverse conditions, such as old hardware or poor/no connectivity? Does the interface respond in the ways our users expect? Does the product handle long-running tasks gracefully and/or in the background?

Ensuring usability requires core skills and knowledge on the development team, such as accessibility, resilience, interface design, and translation.

Needs Fulfillment

Finally we get to the point of how our specific product meets the targeted user needs. Do we understand the users’ needs correctly? Do our product’s features address them in a direct and successful way? How do we continuously measure the level of needs fulfillment?

Ensuring needs fulfillment is the stuff of “product development” and creating features, including user discovery and testing, analytics, market research…

“Experience”

Many products, especially business tools, can succeed with the first three levels. Once a product is successful in fulfilling users’ needs, what can we focus on instead of jamming in more features? We can turn our attention on honing the experience of our successful product. This is the domain of interaction, visual, and language design experts.

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