A Maslow's hierarchy for the digital world?

This blog post came out of a discussion between myself and Liraz Margalit, Customer Experience Psychologist for Clicktale, who originally suggested the concept of the 'Digital Hierarchy of Needs'. 

Maslow's hierarchy

Maslow first put forward his hierarchy of needs back in 1943. The model consisted of a 5 step pyramid explaining how people are motivated to achieve the things in their lives.

Essentially, Maslow was saying that one must first satisfy lower level basic needs before progressing on to higher needs.

While impossible to draw an exact parallel, the pyramid of human needs does share something in common with the digital world of websites and website experience:  Basic website requirements also need to be fulfilled before we can move up to higher level requirements.

If we were to put together our own version of Maslow’s pyramid for the digital world, it could look something like this:

Hierarcy of Digital Needs

Level 1: Website Infrastructure

Where human’s require biological and physiological needs such as air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, websites require a basic infrastructure including a web content management system, servers and Cloud infrastructure. Without these your website simply doesn't exist.

Level 2: Website Functionality

Once your biological needs are met, humans look for safety: protection from the elements, order and law. The components of a civil society achieve this for us today. For the online world, the next level up is functionality. This translates into your basic web analytics tools and error monitoring systems that ensure your site actually performs and doesn't just exist.

Level 3: Digital Customer Experience

The next level for Maslow’s hierarchy are social needs: the sense of belonging and the feelings of affection and love you get from peers, friends and family. This is closely followed by esteem needs – for mastery, independence, achievement, respect and self-respect. These are the highest of Maslow’s ‘basic’ needs.

For the digital world, our equivalent steps are encompassed under digital customer experience. This is the ability of visitors to feel that they are in the right place when they get to your website; that they intuitively understand where they are on each page in relation to where they want to go in their online journey; that they can easily find what they’re looking for; and that they can achieve their intentions without a struggle.

Achieving Basic Website Needs Are Not Enough

Now if a website can achieve all of the above; it’s technically sound, it functions well and it gives the customers the right experience then your website has begun to serve your business goals and  you can start to measure its success against your business KPI’s.

But in a highly competitive online business world it’s not really enough. In the same way that for humans, being respected, having a big house and being successful are, for most, not the end of their ambitions and goals. Which is why Maslow added a ‘self-actualization’ layer to his pyramid. This is the ability to use your creative talents to fulfill your maximum personal potential. And Maslow (1962) believed self-actualization could be measured through the concept of “peak experiences”. Hoffman (1998) also states that self-actualization is a continual process of becoming rather than a perfect state one reaches – something we've mentioned before on this blog: 5 Reasons Why Your Website Optimization Should Never End.

Level 4: Business-Actualization

In the digital world, we could call the top layer of the pyramid business-actualization. The ultimate goal of a website or online business is not that people just visit and buy. Rather, that through the right digital experiences (build upon all of the preceding factors that we mentioned), the customer enjoys visiting, wants to visit often, and wants to develop his identity in-line with your brand. And that’s what sets a winning online experience apart from an average one.

Becoming the Ultimate Digital Hub

Most websites have already achieved steps 1 and 2 of our digital hierarchy. And many are implementing step 3, a better digital customer experience, using tools such as Clicktale, VOC analytics, A/B testing and others. If these tools are tied together successfully, then your website can become the ultimate digital hub for your customer. And I say ‘hub’ because this includes mobile, desktop, apps and more. And like Hoffman points out – it’s a continual process. Not a one-time step.

To start you need to be able to live your website experience through your customers' eyes. And just as Maslow (1970) believed that only around 2% of people ever achieve self-actualization, probably far fewer than 2% of websites are currently doing what they need to reach the top of the digital pyramid.

But that should only spur us on harder. Because whoever gets to the top of the pyramid becomes a brand winner with the power to reshape entire markets according to their vision. And if that’s not business-actualization and indeed self-actualization, then nothing else is!


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