What Luke Skywalker and Your Customer Have in Common: Thoughts on Emotional Needs

They’re heroes of the story, with needs and motivations.

Image by ErikaWittlieb from Pixabay

Sometime last year I was conducting a storytelling and product management workshop at work. I had instructed the participants, who were Information Technology managers and officers, to come prepared by thinking of fictional characters. (For an icebreaker, create an anonymous poll and ask, “Which fictional character do you (secretly) identify with?” Then watch the team have fun guessing who wrote what.)

I asked them the question: what was the principal thing the protagonist(s) had to accomplish?

I gave them some examples:

  • Throw a ring into the fiery depths of a volcano
  • Provide a financial cushion for his family after his death by cooking meth
  • Steal from three casinos at the same time
  • Break the cycle of waking up on the same day, with Sonny and Cher playing on the clock radio

Of course, this was a fairly reductive way of going about a protagonist’s “functional” need, but they got the idea. (What a character wants to do necessarily changes throughout the course of a movie, but just like with your OKRs, there’s always one main objective.)

Then I asked them to dig deeper and think about what the protagonist needed in terms of an emotional dimension. This is where Luke comes in.

Functional: A young man needs to blow up the Death Star and save the galaxy from the Evil Empire.

Emotional: Luke wants a larger purpose in the galaxy and longs to be a Jedi like his father.

This was a little more difficult — especially if the chosen protagonist is pretty flat, like James Bond or Jack Reacher — but the workshop participants figured that out too. (One way of thinking about it is asking, What’s the protagonist’s motivation?, which typically connotes that emotional aspect.)

Then I asked them to think of the following:

  • actual customers and their needs,
  • the functional dimension of those needs
  • the emotional dimension of those needs

Simple, I thought: Functional needs were easy. We worked in IT, so we saw functional requirements all day.

But the emotional dimension? A few participants expressed difficulty with this part of the exercise. How would we even know that? someone asked. And in the moment I couldn’t come up with an answer, because I was so used to baking in the qualitative outcome in my storytelling framework, and couldn’t properly describe to the participants what seemed to be a bit of a mental leap.

So the following piece (just like everything I write) is my way of puzzling out the answer to a problem. How do I communicate the importance of gathering this “emotional requirement,” as it were?

This post is in three parts:

  • Why understanding your customer’s emotional needs are important
  • How advertising nails this
  • Next steps: a 10-minute task, and a 30-minute task

First pyramid: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

You’ve all seen psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of a hierarchy of needs, from 1943. It’s a favorite from AP sociology and psychology, but its afterlife has arguably lasted longer in the management domain:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, from Neel Burton, “Our Hierarchy of Needs,” Psychology Today

The model has been criticized as ethnocentric ; for instance, not all cultures share this vision of individual achievement at the top . (Apparently he never visualized it as a pyramid in any of his writings, nor did he see these “levels” as separate and non-overlapping either.) But it’s a persuasive visualization nonetheless, with eating, drinking, and shelter at the base of the pyramid, and self-actualization (“the full realization of one’s potential”) at the apex. (Maslow later revisited this final dimension, adding a new level, transcendence, and arguing that the fullest self-realization was found in something beyond one’s self.)

Your customers aren’t just saying, “We want you to build a bot that does this and this and this.”

They may also be saying, “We’re tired of having to do this. We feel like we are wasting our time and want to do something more meaningful.”

At its simplest level, Maslow’s pyramid reminds us of the fact that customers have needs in the same way that, well, human beings have needs.

And one can then uncover the contours of these needs by listening, watching, and talking to people:

Conduct research in order to develop knowledge about what your users do, say, think, and feel.

…In this phase, you talk to a range of actual users. Directly observe what they do, how they think, and what they want, asking yourself things like ‘what motivates or discourages users?’ or ‘where do they experience frustration?’ The goal is to gather enough observations that you can truly begin to empathize with your users and their perspectives.

Sarah Gibbons, on design thinking

That’s Sarah Gibbons, Chief Designer at the Nielsen Norman Group, writing about the empathy phase in design thinking. The words she uses above are telling: motivation, discouragement, frustration. They’re precisely emotional in content. (See, too, Clayton Christensen’s formulation of jobs to be done: “Jobs are never simply about function — they have powerful social and emotional dimensions.”)

Second and third pyramids: Customer Experience

Understanding the customer’s needs beyond the functional requirements — in short, this emotional dimension — is directly tied to understanding what customers value. I’m taking my cues from Amanda O’Grady here, who writes about how companies unfortunately tend to prioritize emotion last:

Gartner’s Customer Experience Pyramid, via BusinessWire
Forrester’s Customer Experience Pyramid, via SlideShare

See the pattern here? (I mean, other than the fact they’re pyramids.) Enjoyment. Improvement. Safety. Power. Once again you get those intangibles at the very top.

Understanding this emotional aspect is crucial because it’s what customers value most. I don’t remember the suit I got at Nordstrom back in 1997, but I sure remember walking out of there feeling like a king.

Learning from Advertising

But it can be a little difficult to see how these emotional needs could even emerge in the arid soil of software development requirements, so I’ll approach the subject from a more familiar angle: advertising.

Advertising makes those needs very clear, because commercials play on our desires to be fed, to be safe, to be loved, to be seen as attractive, to provide for one’s self or family and save money while doing it. Most advertisements on TV try to fulfill more than one.

By way of illustration— and stop me if you’ve seen this posted on Medium 500 times already — check out this photo:

Hans Hansen, from Das Buch von Volkswagen 1938–1988. Look at all those widgets.

Consider all the parts above, loosely, as output.

I’m in software development, so we have to be good at breaking things down to their component parts. In that sense we’re quite adept at addressing a customer’s functional needs — that’s what the developers are really great at.

But what your customers may be most interested in — what they’re really buying — is this:

Volkswagen Golf SportWagen ‘Wagen Romance” Commercial. No widgets, all outcome.

Consider what the advertisement conveys, loosely, as outcome.

It’s not just about the car. It’s about how the car lets its passengers fulfill goals — freedom, stability, companionship, excitement — that are far more than just getting from one place to another.

But Selling Software Applications Isn’t Like Selling A Car, Darn It

OK, wait a second. Selling someone a Pepsi is one thing, but talking a potential customer into partnering with you to implement robotic processing automation in their division? That sounds like another story altogether.

But is it, really?

Let’s say people tell me about their many wasted hours performing manual and repetitive processes, when they could be spending time doing actual analysis.

They’re not just saying, “We want you to build a bot that does this and this and this.”

They may also be saying, “We’re tired of having to do this. We feel like we are wasting our time and want to do something more meaningful.”

By adopting a people-first mindset, we consider a deeper and more holistic view of the problem to be solved, including how people feel about the problem they’re facing.

We have everything to gain by seeing coworkers or customers — these sentient, emotion-filled creatures we oftentimes reduce to numbers on a chart — as simply being human. They too are enmeshed in the sticky web of late-capitalist pandemic culture as we are. They possess (and are possessed by) needs and foibles and motivations that we also have.

It doesn’t mean that any user story in the backlog going forward should include a psychological assessment of the user! It simply means that by adopting a people-first mindset, we consider a deeper and more holistic view of the problem to be solved — and that includes how people think and feel about the problem they’re facing. We product managers should understand how emotional needs — some very human needs — govern people’s interactions with us, with our technology, with our products. True insight — and a deeper connection with the customer — comes in understanding all the squishy stuff.

OK, so what does Luke Skywalker have to do with all of this? We go back to the storytelling framework. If Star Wars only concentrated on the functional need, and populated the movie with explosions and furry creatures, you’d still have a serviceable popcorn movie. But what moves Luke?

It’s the emotional undercurrent — Luke’s search for a father figure — that gives the movie its depth. It’s what animates the film. It’s what makes the series resonate with audiences.

And understanding the squishy stuff is what will make your product stand out as well.

Try this at home

The 10-minute task: Let’s go back to the Luke Skywalker example.

Functional need: A young man needs to blow up the Death Star and save the galaxy from the Evil Empire.

Emotional need: Luke wants a larger purpose in the galaxy and longs to be a Jedi like his father.

Then think of an actual customer or user of yours — a living, breathing, feeling, thinking customer — and write down their functional and emotional needs as related to your product. For instance:

Functional: The bot will automatically log into the application, create a request, add the correct attachments from a specified folder, and submit the request.

Emotional: I want work that’s more meaningful than having to copy and paste these entries 500 times.

See how you’re beginning to flesh out the hero of your product story?

The 30-minute task: There is no substitute for a formal UX research interview, but there’s still a lot to be said for a casual, but intentional, chat with a user, with curiosity your only agenda. (I rather like Brian de Haaff’s 19 Questions All Curious Product Managers Ask, which reminds me to step away from the requirements document and relate to the customer as a fellow human being.) Ask questions, but most important, listen.

Footnotes, where I bury things I still want to write about

p.s. Functional and emotional needs in fiction: When writing fiction, I go through a similar exercise with my characters, so I always have an idea of what a character needs — or thinks she needs — whether in a particular scene, or throughout the course of the story or novel. This is extremely helpful especially when you don’t know what happens next: you can always work on a scene that reveals some aspect of the protagonist’s needs. (95% of the time, the main protagonists are themselves unaware of their (true) emotional needs. That aspect makes a character’s emotional journey — and the book or movie as a whole — much more satisfying.)

p.s. 2. On Luke Skywalker: Crack open a random book on screenwriting in the last three decades or so and you’ll inevitably get Luke Skywalker as a writing example-not just because he’s iconic and culturally familiar to millions of readers, but because Luke’s story is the Hero’s Journey, straight up. I’m not really a Star Wars fan, but there’s no discounting its pedagogical utility.

p.s. 3. On emotions: I couldn’t decide which was the better song to end with, so you get both:

https://youtu.be/NrJEFrth27Q

Originally published at https://www.thewilyfilipino.com.

Senior product manager, fiction writer, former anthropologist. I study culture, tell stories, and herd cats. More: https://about.me/benito.vergara.

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