Why Only Functional Systems Are No Longer Enough

Bansi Mehta | 5 min read

Needs and wants. Aren’t these the driving force behind most human actions?

American psychologist, Abraham Maslow published a research paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” way back in 1943. The contents of that paper covered his interpretation of human needs and their hierarchy from the most basic to the most complex. Maslow’s observations have been subject to intense debate over the years and spewed several versions, including one created for delivering better, more powerful user experiences.

Hierarchy of UX Needs based on Maslow's theory

Maslow’s theory suggests that humans have to fulfill their needs in order to experience satisfaction and that there’s an order in which these needs are to be fulfilled – moving from the basic level to the higher ones. From the UX design perspective, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs reasons that at least at a basic level, the product or service in question has to be functional. Meaning, it has to function as it has been programmed. Subsequent levels can be attained on meeting the terms of the current category from the bottom up.

Characteristics of hierarchy

This pyramid that represents the hierarchy of user needs can be used as a reference point for the UX roadmap and tracking its progress. The pyramid can be divided into 2 sections. The 3 levels at the bottom focus on the user’s ability to accomplish the desired task. From level 4 until 6 the focus shifts to the user’s experiences while using the product or service.

Several enterprise businesses have fallen into the trap of merely seeking value in attaining any place from level 1 to level 3. If it is anywhere between functional to usable, they fail to notice the tremendous value that comes with investing in improving user experience. Why fix something that isn’t broken? In doing so, they end up forgoing the attainment of higher goals such as improved customer loyalty and spend user advocacy, and numerous other incredibly beneficial outcomes stemming from an engaged user base.

“If a company rushes to install an enterprise system without first having a clear understanding of the business implications, the dream of integration can quickly turn into a nightmare.” –HBR

What is it costing your business?

Businesses experience major setbacks when they do not prioritize attaining higher levels of user experience. This can stunt the company’s sales and growth, manifesting in ways such as –

  • Demotivated employees
  • Impaired productivity
  • Increased security risks
  • Low-quality customer service
  • Battered brand image
  • Limits in innovation

Enterprise software is often envisioned to solve business problems and not the ones at a personal/individual level and is therefore developed to do so. Once this bottom-of-the-pyramid functional level is attained, user needs and behaviors are relegated to being an afterthought. A study commissioned by Sapho from Forrester reported how 75% of employees have a hard time accessing information in their enterprise systems and applications, and that the IT department remains essentially unaware of the employees’ needs.

“When implementing a system, many organizations focus their time and effort on gaining approval from leadership executives, when they should be engaging key employees who will be using the system the most,”– Kevin Beasley, CIO of VAI

With the interface design probably being handled by the development team, priorities shift to things like speed or layouts instead of the experience in its entirety. Since enterprise software is meant to be used by a captive market of individuals who are unlikely to express disappointments in a conventional way, the perception remains that it only needs to be “passable” enough to attain the bottom level of the pyramid.

This situation has undergone a change with people using personal smartphones on the go and workplace devices where they make use of enterprise software. It has been instrumental in highlighting the sharp contrasts in the quality of enterprise UX and consumer UX. However, it only began hurting the businesses when their employees began rehashing consumer apps for business uses, thus throwing rules and compliance frameworks into a tizzy. Case in point – the same survey by Forrester revealed that 74% of employees would prefer access to data that is personalized and relevant to them, and 69% desire an engaging, mobile-first work experience

Just goes on to prove how the old justifications for the lack of UX investment were short-sighted.

Consumer applications credit their biggest wins to simplicity – this manifests in their thoughtful and intuitive experiences that people love to interact with. Similarly, enterprise users also deserve to use software that they love because it serves their needs in the best manner possible. Applications that are designed to attain the higher levels of the needs pyramid are efficient, intuitive, and aspire to be memorable to the users – something they can’t do without. Intuitive interfaces help users to adapt quickly and navigate easily. Improved features such as clear signposting mean that users are never stuck wondering what they’re supposed to do next in their workflow.

At the heart of every product that’s been designed – be it an app, a website, a building, a manufacturing system, a tool, or anything else – lies a function. This function is the task that the product is expected to perform. The manner in which the product performs this function can be classified into the levels of the Hierarchy of UX Needs. Products need to move on from being functional and usable to become reliable, usable, convenient, pleasurable, and meaningful. However, to achieve those stages takes a concentrated and dedicated effort, which only takes place over time.

More Resources:

3 Dashboard Design Principles You Can Afford to Break

Transforming Legacy Systems is the Need of the Hour

Gathering UX Requirements

About Author:

With an experience of over a decade in User Experience, Bansi Mehta is the Founder & CEO of Koru UX Design. Collectively, her team provides exceptional UX for enterprise applications and complex systems, working with clients ranging from healthcare giants to boutique investment banks.

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