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Design Hierarchy of Needs

What can we understand by the hierarchy of needs in engineering design?
© Universiti Malaya

In the previous sections we have looked at Focus Group Discussions and Interviews to identify needs.

It is also important for us also to take a closer look at how people perceive needs. We may then rank them in terms of priority (or hierarchy).

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a concept in psychology which describes human needs. In the design context it can be ranked from low to high as functionality, reliability, usability, proficiency and creativity.

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First and foremost, a design must be able to fulfill its function in the very basic sense. Let us extend the example of the electric rice cooker discussed in the previous step.

The electric rice cooker is an integral part of the Asian household. It performs the task of cooking the daily rice automatically, and perfectly. Some of the specifications for rice cookers include cooking functions, capacity, and ease of use.

However, a product which stops at its basic function will not be attractive. If a rice cooker on the market now has multiple functions of being able to cook porridge, mixed rice, and bake a cake, then yours must be able to do so as well.

So, at this lowest level of hierarchy, is deemed a failure if it does not fulfill its basic function. However, if it doesn’t move beyond this level it is not considered to be anything special.


Once your design has fulfilled its functional needs, it is able to move up to the next level which is Reliability. Simply translated in the rice cooker case, it is able to cook rice perfectly every single time.

Your rice cooker is stable, consistent and proves time and time again that it has met your expectations. If your rice cooker sometimes produces uncooked rice, or soggy rice, it is not reliable. Again, a product which just fulfills function and reliability is of low value.


How easily can can the rice cooker accomplish basic tasks? For example, different settings for different types of rice dishes, or setting a timer for advanced cooking, or large volumes of rice? Is it easy to clean, or easy to program? These are usability needs. They can be identified through your engagement with your stakeholders.

Are they instinctively easy to use by the user? What about if you make a mistake in the setting? Do you have to throw your rice out? Usable designs are of moderate value. At the very least, it is able to distinguish itself from those of very basic functionalities and reliability.


Does your rice cooker empower home cooks to do more and do better? Can the rice cooker to bake a cake, or cook healthy meals? These are proficiency needs.

It is not mandatory for your rice cooker to have these functions. In most occasions, they will hardly even be used. However, their availability is desirable and improves the design considerably.


Once all of the lower-level needs have been met, your design can move on to creative needs. Fulfillment of the lower needs in the hierarchy now allows you to be creative in thinking of the possibilities that your rice cooker can be used by the user in creative ways. Maybe your rice cooker can be programmed from your smartphone, for example.

The design team is responsible in engaging with the user and stakeholders to identify what is needed and desirable. They will then come up with a needs statement which describes what the product should be.

In your opinion, which of these needs are most important to you? Please leave your comments below.

© Universiti Malaya
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