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Maslow, Nielsen and the web’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow, Nielsen and the web’s hierarchy of needs

There are four things which matter to your online visitors more than anything else.  They are universal priorities which apply to everyone who uses the web.  We know that if these four things aren’t in place, your customers won’t listen to, read, or look at a single thing on your website.  Make sure you get these right before you do anything else online.

Abraham Maslow, the eminent American psychologist from the mid 1900s published a paper in 1943 titled “The Theory of Human Motivation”.  His paper was noteworthy because his study focussed on exemplary people, such as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and the top one percent of college students.  His paper outlined the groundbreaking theory for the hierarchy of human needs.

The theory is straightforward, and is often depicted as a triangle consisting of five levels.  From bottom to top these are physiological needs, safety, love & belonging, esteem and self–actualisation.  Maslow argues that no level can be fulfilled until all levels below it are in order.  For instance you cannot fulfil your potential in love & belonging (e.g. friendship and family) if your physiological needs (e.g. breathing, food, sleep) are not being met.

Ultimately Maslow argues that true achievement and actualisation can only be realised when our core human needs are being met.  To use his triangle, we can only reach the summit when the four foundations are in place.  And this theory rang true for the highly motivated individuals upon which he based his research.

Your website should similarly be like a hierarchy of needs.  Only when the four foundational needs have been met can your website truly achieve its potential.  And only when you give those foundational needs the attention they deserve will your website enjoy exceptional performance.

The four foundations are:

Fast download – The need for fast download is getting increasingly important.  As web users get less and less patient they are expecting your site to download in less than 10 seconds.  There is no space for clutter, waffle or indulgence on your site.

Easy navigation – No one wants to relearn the rules of engagement every time they visit a new website.  They expect your site to be understandable and free of pretentiousness.

Relevant content – What your site says should be directly relevant to the needs of those who visit it.  It must focus on their needs and not on your organisation.  Web visitors pay for your content with their time, so don’t waste their time if you want to turn them into customers.

Up to date content – Not only should your content be relevant, it should be up to date.  Allied to this it should be self evidently up to date.  Meta information should outline where relevant its date of publication and its author.  This builds trust in your site.

These four foundations have been researched and presented by a leading Danish web thinker called Jakob Nielsen.  His focus on usability ensures that we can objectively measure, as opposed to subjectively guess, what is important to people when they come to your site.

Only when you are sure that you have fulfilled all of your visitors needs in areas of download, navigation, content and freshness can you begin to tackle the other challenges.  Furthermore, these four priorities must dominate all of the decisions which you make regarding your website.

Think of how you focus your energies in managing your website.  Consider the time you devote to technology, design, content management tools, project management and search engine optimisation.  Make sure that you focus the appropriate energies on the foundational elements of the web hierarchy.  Then, and only then will you be able to enjoy web–actualisation!

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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