product management

What Luke Skywalker and Your Customer Have in Common: Thoughts on Emotional Needs

The other week I was conducting a storytelling and product management workshop—more on this in a future blog entry—and walking people through an exercise on customer needs. I had instructed the participants, who were IT managers and officers, to write down fictional characters and their needs, and then analyze the latter in terms of a functional dimension, and an emotional dimension:

Functional: A young man needs to blow up the Death Star and save the galaxy from the Evil Empire.

Emotional: Luke wants a larger purpose in the galaxy and longs to be a Jedi like his father.1

Then I asked the participants to think of the following:

  • actual customers and their needs,
  • the functional dimension, and
  • the emotional dimension

Simple, I thought: Functional needs were easy. We worked in IT, so we saw functional requirements all day. But the emotional dimension? A couple of participants expressed difficulty with this part of the exercise, and in the moment I, too, was stumped, because I was so used to baking in the qualitative outcome in my storytelling framework, and couldn’t properly describe to the participants what seemed to be a bit of a mental leap.

How do I work backwards, and contextualize how one gathers this “emotional requirement,” as it were? Some thoughts follow.

You’ve all seen psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of a hierarchy of needs, from 1943 (though apparently he never visualized it as a pyramid in any of his writings, nor did he see these “levels” as separate and non-overlapping)—it’s a favorite from AP sociology and psychology, but its afterlife has arguably lasted longer in the management domain:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, in the form of a pyramid
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, from Neel Burton, “Our Hierarchy of Needs,” Psychology Today

It’s been criticized as ethnocentric—not all cultures share this vision of individual achievement at the top—but it’s a persuasive visualization nonetheless, with eating, drinking and shelter at the base of the pyramid, and self-actualization (“the full realization of one’s potential”) at the apex. (Maslow later revisited this final dimension, adding a new level, transcendence, and arguing that the fullest self-realization was found in something beyond one’s self.)

At its simplest level, Maslow’s pyramid reminds us of the fact that customers have needs in the same way that, well, human beings have needs.

Your customers aren’t just saying, “We want you to build a bot that does this and this and this.”

They may also be saying, “We’re tired of having to do this. We feel like we are wasting our time and want to do something more meaningful.” 

And one can then uncover the contours of these needs by listening, watching, and talking to people:

Conduct research in order to develop knowledge about what your users do, say, think, and feel.

…In this phase, you talk to a range of actual users. Directly observe what they do, how they think, and what they want, asking yourself things like ‘what motivates or discourages users?’ or ‘where do they experience frustration?’ The goal is to gather enough observations that you can truly begin to empathize with your users and their perspectives.

Sarah Gibbons, on design thinking

That’s Sarah Gibbons, Chief Designer at the Nielsen Norman Group, writing about the empathy phase in design thinking.2 The words she uses above are telling: motivation, discouragement, frustration. They’re precisely emotional in content. (See, too, Clayton Christensen’s formulation of jobs to be done: “Jobs are never simply about function—they have powerful social and emotional dimensions.”)

But it can be a little difficult to see how these emotional needs could even emerge in the arid soil of software development requirements, so I’ll approach the subject from a more familiar angle: advertising.

Advertising makes those needs very clear, because commercials play on our desires to be fed, to be safe, to be loved, to be seen as attractive, to provide for one’s self or family and save money while doing it. Most advertisements on TV try to fulfill more than one.

But wait a second. Selling someone a Pepsi is one thing, but talking a potential customer into partnering with you to implement robotic processing automation in their division? That sounds like another story altogether.

But is it, really?

Let’s say people tell me about their many wasted hours performing manual and repetitive processes, when they could be spending time doing actual analysis.

They’re not just saying, “We want you to build a bot that does this and this and this.”

They may also be saying, “We’re tired of having to do this. We feel like we are wasting our time and want to do something more meaningful.” 

By adopting a user-first mindset, we consider a deeper and more holistic view of the problem to be solved, including how people feel about the problem they’re facing.

It doesn’t mean that any user story in the backlog going forward should include a psychological assessment! It simply means that by adopting a user-first mindset, we consider a deeper and more holistic view of the problem to be solved—and that includes how people feel about the problem they’re facing. We have everything to gain by seeing coworkers or customers as simply being human, enmeshed as we are in the sticky web of late-capitalist pandemic culture, but in all the glory of their cultural particularities, and possessed of all the needs and foibles and motivations that we, too, possess, and understanding that these very human qualities govern their interactions with us, with our technology, with our products.

And now I have to figure out how to boil this all down into a couple of slides.

1 Crack open a random book on screenwriting in the last three decades or so and you’ll inevitably get Luke Skywalker as a writing example—not just because he’s iconic and culturally familiar to millions of readers, but because Luke’s story is the Hero’s Journey, straight up. You might not be a Star Wars fan, but there’s no discounting its pedagogical utility.

2 I’ll go on the record here and say I’m not the biggest fan of how design thinking is packaged as this groundbreaking epistemological framework, with the said framework retroactively and disingenuously applied to the work of various “innovators” throughout the centuries, though I cravenly register my objection in a footnote. Anthropologists have been conducting qualitative, holistic, empathetic “user research” for over a century now (granted, in ways both responsible and irresponsible), and I’m a little baffled at how a three-hour “ethnographic” “field study” could substitute for the kind of immersion that real ethnographers practice, but if design thinking puts users in the center of the process, so be it, I guess?

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