The software jigsaw into Maslow’s pyramid

Jul 23, 2015 · 15 min read

Whenever working on a product, it never cease to amaze me that eventually Maslow’s stuff pops up. The designer, developer and product person nearly always debate about their product around Maslow’s pyramid, explicitly or implicitly.

-t. intro

It’s not bad to have Maslow’s pyramid in your pocket.

I will start with some ramblings trying to grow as a startup. I will then recap Maslow’s stuff quickly, and how I feel technology progress is tied with Maslow. I’ll finish up with sharing our own experience, and how Maslow’s pyramid has helped us.

Ramblings thoughts | a conversation with strangers

Beginning of future work

End of work” written in the 90s states:

that worldwide unemployment would increase as information technology eliminated tens of millions of jobs in the manufacturing, agricultural and service sectors. He predicted devastating impact of automation on blue-collar, retail and wholesale employees.

The above passage read to me at the time very much in tune to why software is eating the world, which was/is both exciting and frightening. And if I understood @pmarca’s thesis (at least) partially, the part in agreement with “End of work” is:

Historically, innovation that obsoletes existing jobs and technologies has not created permanent unemployment, but has instead opened jobs in new industries and moved jobs from agriculture to industry and the service sector. This process is known as creative destruction.

I think of one the main fundamental difference between @pmarca’s “why software is eating the world” and “End of work” is probably the difference in their technological determinism assumptions. This quote by Murphie and Potts maybe sums it up perfectly, much better than I could:

The relationship between technology and society cannot be reduced to a simplistic cause-and-effect formula. It is, rather, an ‘intertwining’, whereby technology does not determine but “…operates, and are operated upon in a complex social field.

rephrasing what I think End of work is underestimating,
the possibility of entrepreneurs to create something imaginable
yet not quite so deterministic fiting our needs and wants.

Start of “entrepreneurial” work

This is a sharp contrast (I felt) compared to navigating a startup. Through 33% mission, 33% vision, 33% uncertainty and maybe more than 101% will, it doesn’t feel like one has time or room to be elegant, everything is a bit messy.

Just have to get the f$%#ing things done, and figure out things
you can never really grasp fully or fit it into your nice mental system.

I would say doing research was much less path-dependent than growth.

Each path is different and there are 1000x more path-decisions to make in the same time period. Also there are no pats on the back for negative results, i.e. as a startup there is only the true positive results, false alarms and miss-hits don’t count as contributions to the field.

Get outside of your comfortable mental box. Image credit:

Accepting the box is the way it is

Sometimes nothing seems in its right place, random, chaotic, and we may never know the actual cause-and-effect. This is something one has to accept, but never become too complacent about. The previous sentence is intended without sounding too much like a hipster, wabi sabi(ish). As paraphrasing Richard Powell:

“[w]abi-sabi/growth/startup nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

Pictures the illustrate my attitudes towards wabi sabi. Image credit:

To me, going about growth feels like an 101 appreciation course of Japanese aesthetics. Aesthetics of asymmetry, rugged edges, a different type of perfection that is quite different from western aesthetics, deriving from Greek ideals philosophy. Perhaps when you have hundred billions of market cap, you could demand perfection wanting to build a whole city full of Temple of Artemis. Though what we want and need may not always be the same. Even Facebook still preaches:

move fast and break things.

Blending eastern philosophies and aesthetics into western society and markets has led to some interesting results, e.g. imagination, curiosity, innovation, product design etc. Cool people have blended eastern stuff into western things. Steve Jobs from the past to they contemporary Jacky Dorsey.

Regardless of eastern or western cultures, we are all human. A company’s needs and wants is somewhat different to users’. But the practise of reflecting on needs and wants in a systematic way, is probably similar for both. The practise of fitting perception, assumptions, solutions, executions into boxes are definitely better when the boxes are more framework(ish) than formulae. Frames allow dialogue to flow better (with self, with team, with …) and to happen continuously. It’s slightly harder flow through a solid cube, isn’t it?

End of work to Maslow?

I was then just so fascinated by the questions of what define our intrinsic values? and what values should be enabled or delivered to us? I wanted (& needed) to find out everyone’s thoughts on how tech is/was developed and it’s relationship to our intrinsic values.

I got an insightful reply from @pmarca.

I agree 100% the above statement at our innate level. But I would argue at least semantically that at resultant behavioural level, tech affect us both culturally or environmentally (maybe conditioned is the wrong word to use).

We need to evolve to survive changes to our surroundings. The paradox about technology paradigms shifts, is that the shift happens only if the technology can also take our innate curiosity or intrinsic motivations towards different levels:

-We craved more information and Google organised it for us.

-Everyone was on the internet, but Facebook connected us a bit more.

-Twitter enabled us to engage in conversations of all kind.

During this conversation, @stevesi shared a diagram of Maslow’s pyramid, which is a framework that allows us to analyse our needs and wants. For me, it’s like a compass to guide our journey of development and growth (that we always keep in our pocket).

0. recap

Maslow’s pyramid also known as the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans’ innate curiosity. His theories parallel many other theories of human developmental psychology, some of which focus on describing the stages of growth in humans. Maslow used the terms “physiological”, “safety”, “belongingness” and “love”, “esteem”, “self-actualization”, and “self-transcendence” to describe the pattern that human motivations generally move through.

The patterns in developmental psychology seems to map very well to how techhnology is being developed to our needs and wants. As our motivations grow into different patterns of needs:

technology disrupts our comfort levels not just by being disruptive,
but it has to first fill our needs and tranforming our wants.

Different Layers

The most fundamental and basic four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs” or “d-needs”: esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs… Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs. Maslow also coined the term “metamotivation” to describe the motivation of people who go beyond the scope of the basic needs and strive for constant betterment.

This is actually very consistent to the development of internet. Initially the progress are about connecting machines and storing information. Next came the connectivity of people, meeting our social motivaion. The connectivity of people started from simple email to IRC chat r00ms.

To quote @pmarca,

Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.

Beginnings of modern internet. Image credit:

How does Maslow’s next layer correspond to software? Esteem are built on top of ecosystems with reputation systems and stable social graphs, each eco-system has their social currency systems, where we produce and consume, and things more than bits move around, created, destroyed.

Self-actualisation is about both expressive and perceptive relatedness, competence and autonomy, i.e. both the inputs and outputs to AR or VR. Expression and perception are two sides that connect relatedness, demonstrate competence, and creates autonomy. Finally transcendence is both the connecting and expanding more expressions and perceptions.

The hierarchies of needs are not really distinct layers, but rather transitional and maybe parallel. Referencing a passage from Maslow:

The human mind and brain are complex and have parallel processes running at the same time, thus many different motivations from various levels of Maslow’s hierarchy can occur at the same time. Maslow spoke clearly about these levels and their satisfaction in terms such as “relative,” “general,” and “primarily.” Instead of stating that the individual focuses on a certain need at any given time, Maslow stated that a certain need “dominates” the human organism. Thus Maslow acknowledged the likelihood that the different levels of motivation could occur at any time in the human mind, but he focused on identifying the basic types of motivation and the order in which they should be met.

How do we fill different layers needs, and together somehow? I don’t believe it will be a check box, but something more like,

designing for user experience is then like composing layers of
chord progressions together with melodic expressions and harmonic layering.

However true diffusion of tech, products, services, some parts of the conducting should be left to the end users. Passive audiences should be transformed to participants that interact on their own, our imagination of the future become infinite.

Taking a slightly more detailed look in each layer:

Physiological needs

Physiological needs are the physical requirements for human survival. If these requirements are not met, the human body cannot function properly and will ultimately fail. Physiological needs are thought to be the most important; they should be met first.

This layer is more of atoms rather bits, so let’s go straight to the next layer.

Safety needs

With their physical needs relatively satisfied, the individual’s safety needs take precedence and dominate behavior.

As we become more connected, both security and privacy in bits are more and more prevalent now. We communicate, transact using bits. Our past, present and future are going to be all encoded in bits. There has been a collective drive towards resilient, distributed systems to provide more safety, for example blockchain-based architecture…

Love and belonging

After physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, the third level of human needs is interpersonal and involves feelings of belongingness

Socio-technical innovations can transform the individual’s ability to form and maintain emotionally significant relationships that fills the void of belongingness, such as:

  • Friendship: I use a combination of Facebook and Twitter to maintain and explore friendship.
  • Intimacy: I only use a few messengers to discuss more private and intimate stuff. A lot more people desire various forms of intimacy, via ephemerality, anonymity, spontaneously etc.

According to Maslow, humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance among their social groups, regardless whether these groups are large or small.

About the relatedness we want, I think it is the connection in and with context.


Most people have a need for stable self-respect and self-esteem. Maslow noted two versions of esteem needs: a “lower” version and a “higher” version. The “lower” version of esteem is the need for respect from others. This may include a need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. The “higher” version manifests itself as the need for self-respect. For example, the person may have a need for strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence, and freedom. This “higher” version takes precedence over the “lower” version because it relies on an inner competence established through experience.

Retrospectively, platforms that have gained critical mass have designed-in and enabled esteem to be aggregated or integrated. In terms of UX/UI, we’ve seen a wide varieties of likes, hearts, favourites, follows, friending, shares, RTs etc. These quantifiable social metrics are the most basic unit of action, that built computational esteem/trust/reputation. But I think the “higher” version of esteem are more than Google Analytics interaction points. This “higher” layer is what happens within the interactions.

Maslow states that while he originally thought the needs of humans had strict guidelines, the “hierarchies are interrelated rather than sharply separated”. This means that esteem and the subsequent levels are not strictly separated; instead, the levels are closely related.

i.e. one cannot really separate various layers, since experiences are not quite reducible. They temporally evolving and have to be viewed as a whole.


“What a man can be, he must be.” This quotation forms the basis of the perceived need for self-actualization. This level of need refers to what a person’s full potential is and the realization of that potential. Maslow describes this level as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. As previously mentioned, Maslow believed that to understand this level of need, the person must not only achieve the previous needs, but master them.

Progress of society and technology has allowed larger population proportions and each individuals to allocate more of their time towards pursuing self-actualisations.

The term “Self-actualization” may not universally convey Maslow’s observations; this motivation refers to focusing on becoming the best person that one can possibly strive for in the service of both the self and others. Maslow’s term of self-actualization might not properly portray the full extent of this level; quite often, when a person is at the level of self-actualization, much of what they accomplish in general may benefit others or, “the greater self”.

While Carlota Perez’s first 4 technological revolutions builds our infrastructure advances that is a prerequisite in leading up the golden ages. It is Perez’s 5th technological revolution, the information revolution, that will enable both collective self-actualisation at scale and near instantaneous traveling at the speed of something we take for grant, aka internet.

What a wonderful time we live in.


In his later years, Maslow explored a further dimension of needs, while criticizing his own vision on self-actualization. The self only finds its actualization in giving itself to some higher goal outside oneself, in altruism and spirituality.

To me, the internet frees us from the limits: how much information and many people we can reach(payload); and where and when we can access stuff (frequency). Looking at our wonderful progress as an evolving graph, we are increasing not only the number of connected nodes, but we are also increasing the richness and depth of each edge that connects. This graph symbolises transcendence both individually and collectively.

1.3 a piece of the puzzle


Deliver all the content, EVERYTHING, anytime, anywhere (anyways).


But just feeding all the information to people does not necessary provide a sense of security if the signal-to-noise is very low,

the advancement of software is about
getting the right content to the right people.


On the internet we experience wider spectrums of ambience than there was and is ever possible in the physical world, one that is increasing with various technology progress combined with the being connected. The way content are produced, transmitted and consumed by networks of neurons, people, medium(s), in different forms are a duality of our social needs and technology progress. A piece of content is just an undetermined state in the larger part of higher order life cycles of ideas. Before this particular content came about, it was derived from many other previous ones. And after this content exists, it will spawn directly or indirectly off different ones.

Many communities, platforms, networks creates boundaries and surfaces of different reflective prorporties that shape the ambience of each subspace on the internet. But as technology progresses (an overall win) to our lives, more out-dated spaces may become of only historical, archalogical, anthropological relevance.

Mobile is already here and taking over, but moving existing platform onto mobile sometimes elicit the following image in my mind:

trying to putting wheels on a building, only makes it KIND OF mobile.

Our needs and wants for mobility cannot be separated from connected mobility, connecting people, machines and more goodness on demand. Reflecting closer, there is a higher order content mobility at work.

Higher order content mobility is not about just the initial interaction between the user and the content, i.e. on the device that turns human cognition to bits or vice verse. Look closer at the mobility of what moves? Content moves, communication of stuff moves. Why does it move? Because we all have social needs and wants.

Thus maybe we should look at mobility beyond a binary classification of “if the device is mobile?” but rather “how much mobility does software enable us?” We want to look at the total mobility across the reincarnations of content.

To increase mobility we must look at the surfaces that is doing the reflecting. Different surface materials have different frequency dependent characteristics, the frequencies of the (sound) source. The placement of the each surface across the 3-dimensional space also affects the ambience. Although I marvel at beautiful architecture, why should we accept being restricted by the walls on what we hear. More mobility will bring more opportunities to progress.

Why build another Philharmonie de Paris,
and not make better use of existing surface fitted together by everyone?

Even with the physicals there are many subjective consideration for acoustic design. Image Credit:

Esteem & Self-actualisation

It’s not about having “true” algorithmic feeds. Basically, people are not only worried about information overload, but bad information overload. We’re squarely in the journey of solving that latter problem.

x. Outro

After all, the push-pull amplifier brought more music & sound to more of us.

Trigger News

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