The Useful-Usable-Desirable Model

The Experience Hierarchy of Needs is developed in the style of Malow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s hierarchy begins with basic human needs for survival like food, shelter, safety and security. After basic human needs are met, pursuit of psychological needs is possible. These needs include friendship, intimate relationships, prestige and sense of accomplishment. Finally, when basic survival and psychological needs are met it is possible to pursue self-fulfillment. These goals are about self-actualization and the pursuit of one’s best creative and individual self. The model dictates there is no need for love and friendship without food and shelter and no need for personal and creative fulfillment without friends or sense of belonging.

The same holds true for the Experience Hierarchy of Needs. Useful is the foundation of the experience hierarchy. Useful refers to the identification of a meaningful problem to solve. Not just any problem, rather a problem that people want or need to be solved. Once we have defined and validated the problem, we move on to Usable. Usable means we deliver the solution or experience in a way that maps to the mental model of the user or customer—it works in a way that makes sense to them. Once we have solved a meaningful problem in a way that makes sense to the user we can move to Desirable. Desirable is where we have an opportunity to develop a deep emotional connection with the user. A connection that can drive fierce loyalty and create major barriers for competition. 

As you can see the model skews to basic functional needs at the foundation and transitions to psychological needs and ultimately emotional needs at the top. Each step is necessary and builds on the one before it. For many the model becomes more elusive, abstract and challenging at the top. Consequently, that’s where you can win.

If you’re skilled enough to successfully deliver on all three levels you can achieve the holy grail: loyal customers who will pay a premium, drive an extra mile and tirelessly promote your product or service to their friends, family and colleagues. Let’s look talk about how!

Planning & Executing Research

The single most important step in the model is not in the model at all. It is designing and executing research that provides the right inputs and insights. Because the model transitions through functional, psychological, emotional and primal needs we also need to consider these in our research. Make certain to design research to answer the following:

  • Functional Needs.  Understand the users’ needs, pain points and problems. What is the problem they care about solving and why? What emotions are associated with the problem and solution?
  • Psychological Needs.  Understand the users’ context and state of mind. How to they need to experience the solution? Are they risking their lives or relaxing for pleasure? 
  • Emotional Needs.  Understand the deeper emotional needs and goals. What’s really driving the need for the solution? What are the deeper emotional feelings that the solution satisfies? 
  • Primal Needs. Understand the unarticulated primal desires and their associated subconscious rewards.

Some things to consider when planning research:

  • Spend time with real users. In all but the rarest cases, designing for yourself is the wrong move. Even if you’re in the target your internal knowledge and bias will likely distort your point of view. Putting yourself in. the users’ shoes can be useful. Empathy is good. Still, there’s no substitute for the users first satisfied, hand perspectives and experiences.
  • Users are notoriously bad at self-reporting and envisioning alternate futures. Some level of survey or interview is typically necessary. Whenever possible use a combination of contextual observation and contextual inquiry to uncover meaningful patterns as well as latent and unmet needs.
  • Emotional needs are often tough to uncover. They can be very personal and varied across a group of users. A person might drive a big diesel truck because it makes them feel powerful, safe or smart. Emotional needs require careful, persistent observation and inquiry.


Understanding your users’ needs requires skill. Yet it is perhaps the easiest step in the hierarchy. Ironically, many failures can be traced to this step. Common mistakes include:

  • Basing problem definition on assumptions rather than real research. We already know what the users want and need.
  • Partially completing the needs analysis. We talked to a couple customers or our competition is doing it so we need to as well.
  • Skipping the step altogether. Upper management directed us to go build this.

It’s easy to observe and identify a problem and assume it’s worth solving. This can be a costly assumption. It’s often the case that what appears to be a problem on the surface is merely a symptom of the real problem. Spending the time to understand what’s underneath can lead to breakthrough opportunities. 

Another common mistake is to identify a problem and assume the users care. I regularly encounter solutions to obvious problems that users don’t care about or aren’t willing to invest in the solution. 

To create a Useful experience, we must first prove Problem-Solution Fit. This means identifying a problem and a corresponding value proposition that user’s say they care about solving. Of course, intent does not translate to proof. To be certain we have identified a meaningful problem we must also prove Product-Market Fit. To prove Product-Market Fit we must test a solution in the market to validate willingness to pay for and adopt it. This can be tricky to do before we’ve actually designed the solution.

In many cases we’re able to validate Problem-Solution Fit and get directional understanding of Product-Market Fit very early in the process. At LPK we’ve developed a process called [Protoselling] that allows us to test fit very early by simulating real products and measuring user interest. In addition, we can build and test rough Prototypes and MVPs early in the process. 


Only after understanding that we have a meaningful solution to a problem people care about solving, should we invest time and dollars into design the solution. You might think this is pretty obvious. Yet I have seen businesses invest tens and even hundreds of millions in solutions only to shutter them because they didn’t validate Problem-Solution and Product Market fit. 

A Useable solution can have many dimensions depending on the context and type of experience. Usability in software and digital experience design is often based on things like learnability, efficiency and memorability using metrics such as error rates and time to complete a task.

In broader terms a usable solution should meet 3 criteria:

  1. It should be appropriate for the context of use. First and foremost, you must deliver an experience that is appropriate for the context of use. A meandering experience with many steps would likely not be appropriate for an air traffic controller interface and a simple transparent 2 step process would likely not suffice for an immersive interactive game experience. 
  2. It should work in a way that makes sense to the user. Users approach experiences with a set of preconceived notions, perceptions and expectations about how things do and should work. These Mental Models dictate how they will expect to interact with your solution. If your solution does not map to their Mental Model, it will never be comfortable or intuitive to learn and use. 
  3. It should surpass basic expectations. Always assume anyone can deliver on the first two criteria. Your experience should surpass your users’ expectations. It should deliver pleasure, surprise, delight or satisfaction as context dictates. At this point you’re beginning to satisfy emotional needs. Everything before this is table stakes. This is the first step in differentiating from your competition. 


I’m going to let you in on a powerful secret. The majority of your competition will not fully satisfy the Useful and Usable steps in the hierarchy. And in the off chance that they do, they will mistake the third Useable criterion as the final step–all they can do to deliver a Desirable experience. They are wrong.

The Experience Hierarchy starts at functional needs and moves through psychological, emotional and primal needs. Connecting at the primal level is where competitive advantage is strongest. Just as we don’t select a life partner simply because they’re fun at parties. We can’t rely on simply surprising or delighting users as a competitive advantage and barrier. Sooner or later a competitor shows up who is more fun at parties and you are old news.

As humans we are hard wired with a set of basic primal human desires. These powerfully engrained universal wants, needs and cravings dictate 95% of our behavior, driving our decision making at a subconscious level. When we satiate these desires, we experience an intrinsic reward for doing what keeps us happy, healthy and viable as a species. 

At LPK we’ve developed a Desires Methodology based on Steven Riess’ model of human motivation. Riess’ model identifies sixteen fundamental needs, values and drives that motivate human behavior. The Desires Methodology allows us to uncover the underlying desire(s) associated with a specific experience. 

Subconscious desires are often different than the expressed psychological and emotional needs. Once identified they allow us to design differentiated experiences that connect with users on a primal level, ultimately creating deep relationships and barriers to competition that are difficult to overcome. 


The Experience Hierarchy of Needs provides a roadmap to deliver Useful, Usable and Desirable experiences that create long-lasting relationships, loyalty, advocacy and business value.  Leveraging this framework allows you to intentionally deliver on all needs while your competitors are simply guessing.