Start with a Human Need - The Human Needs Model

Have you ever found yourself working on a project where you felt that you were prioritizing something that was — not quite — the right solution? You let one slip through the cracks. The idea wasn’t relevant for either your customers or the project as a whole. Don’t worry. Everybody does it. Sometimes, we let our egos, our co-workers, even our customers steer us in the wrong direction by not focusing on what’s essential. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. We could use a simple model: the Human Needs Model.

In Clayton Christensen’s talk: Understanding The Job, he tells the story of a research project conducted for a fast food chain. The focus was on milkshakes. Who doesn’t love milkshakes? Anyway, the problem was that sales for milkshakes had stagnated. The fast-food chain had done extensive traditional market research. Consumers had been invited to give feedback on flavors, the price and other factors. Oddly enough, when improving the beverage, nothing happened to the sales. Why was that?

To understand the root cause, another research study was conducted. Instead of asking the consumers for feedback, the researchers asked them one simple question: “What job causes you to hire a milkshake?”

It turned out that half of the milkshakes were sold before 8 o’ clock in the morning. The researchers discovered that the milkshakes were bought to keep commuters company while driving to work. Because of the milkshake’s deliciously thick consistency, they could enjoy the beverage for a long time. This is in contrast to sodas, coffees and also unrelated products such as candy bars and other snacks that are fairly quick to consume.

The question: “what job does this product do?”, can be perceived as quite awkward when you hear it for the first time, but when you think about it, the query is brilliant. As consumers, we hire products to do a job for us. Sometimes we just want a delicious beverage, sometimes we just want something to keep us company.

In Gaston Legorburu’s and Darren McColl’s book Storyscaping, they call this a “human need”. In the milkshake example, you could argue that the human need is to be entertained, rather than to quench thirst.

Astro Teller, the seminal leader of Google X, said during a Techcrunch keynote:

”Phones would be better if we didn’t have to carry them around.”
Astro Teller

What did he mean by that? The human need of a telephone is to communicate. The human need is not to pick up a phone and dial a number. Technology is only a means to the end. In his opinion, we should strive to make technology invisible. Similarly, he recommends focusing on human needs, rather than solutions.

Another advocate of this frame of thinking is Elon Musk with his First Principles approach.

“With First Principles, you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.”
Elon Musk

What these great thinkers emphasize is that we should focus on the essential, the fundaments, the human needs. This framework can be applied on virtually everything, whether you create products, digital experiences or even marketing plans.

So how can we leverage this in our daily work?

We can use the simple model below. Let’s apply it to Netflix as an example. Netflix is first and foremost in the business of entertainment. The fundamental human need that Netflix addresses, I would argue, is to be entertained. If Netflix fails on entertaining consumers, everything collapses. All else is secondary.


The core of the model is the fundamental need: “I want to be entertained”. All other layers provide secondary and tertiary needs, etcetera.

So, at the onset of your next project, consider using this model to isolate the basic human need that you are addressing. It will help your team stay focused and in the right direction. Think of it as your Minimum Viable Product from a human perspective. Start with a human need.

PS. This is by no means a finished ‘model’. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback DS.