The Hierarchy of Needs in VR is Dependent upon UX

The Hierarchy

For those of you unfamiliar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it is a motivational theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943. It is a model of human needs, depicted as a series levels. Maslow described in his 1943 paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” (and another later paper in 1954) that people are motivated to achieve certain things in life, and some take precedent over others. It is often depicted as a tiered system, and once humans satisfy the base conditions they move up the hierarchy until reaching the top.

The pyramid is as follows from bottom to top. Level one is physiological needs with the examples of air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing, and reproduction. Level two is safety needs with personal security, employment, resources, health, and property. Level three is love and belonging needs with friendship, intimacy, family, and series of connection. Level four is esteem needs with respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, and freedom. Level five is self-actualization needs with the desire to become the most that one can be.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs 1943


A Revision

In 1943 Maslow initially proposed his idea that a person needs to complete lower level needs before continuing onto higher level needs. Later on he elaborated that this theory was not as hierarchical as originally suggested. The completion of the levels were not an ‘all or none’ phenomenon, stating that he might have given “the false impression that a need must be satisfied 100 percent before the next need emerges” (1987, p. 69).

A better interpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy is that each individual has this natural want to move up the ladder of personal development; however, the progress of this individual may be (and often is) interrupted by a lesser need. Significant experiences throughout one’s life, such as loss of a partner or bankruptcy, may lead to internal stress and therefore a user has to revert to building up those lower levels. There is a natural fluctuation between the levels in a human’s life, and moving through the hierarchy is almost never uni-directional. In fact, it is probable that a human could be working on multiple tiers at once. A better representation of the hierarchy can be seen below.


This graph represents the flow of the hierarchy of needs. The X axis (horizontal) represents personal development. The Y axis (vertical) represents intensity of needs. The categories represented in the graph are the five levels of the pyramid: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. The graph itself depicts overlapping curves of each category. The conclusion one could draw from the graph is that there are an infinite number of combinations and directions in which a person could be working through these types of needs.
A Better Depiction for the flow of the Hierarchy of Needs


In the 1970’s Maslow decided to revisit his hierarchical model, and changed it to include three additional motivations that he felt were previously left out. These motivations are: cognitive needs, aesthetic needs, and transcendence.

This pyramid depicts Maslow's revision to his work in the 1940s. The revision includes three new categories totaling in eight different levels in the hierarchy. The first level of the pyramid is physiological needs. The second level of the pyramid is safety needs. The third level of the pyramid is love and belonging needs. The fourth level of the pyramid is esteem needs. The fifth level of the pyramid is cognitive needs. The sixth level of the pyramid is aesthetic needs. The seventh level of the pyramid is self-actualization needs. The eighth and final level is transcendence needs.
Maslow’s New Motivation Model (1970s)

*Maslow’s new motivation model

An Interpretation

How does this fit into the capabilities and understanding of Virtual Reality? For that, I will elaborate upon an article titled “The Hierarchy of Needs in Virtual Reality Development” by Beau Cronin found here. This article is important from a development perspective because it shows the progression of the medium over time. Most corporations with the capital available to develop VR will indeed be focusing on the bottom tiers of this ladder before working their way up.

This depicts Cronin's Hierarchy of Needs in Virtual Reality with the bottom level being comfort in relation to H/W System & Rendering Engine. The second level above that being interpretability in relation to S/W Frameworks and Conventions. The third level being Usefulness in relation to design. The fourth and topmost level being delight in relation to artistry.
Cronin’s Hierarchy of Needs in Virtual Reality

*Cronin’s depiction

However, from my personal studies of psychology and its relationship with Virtual Reality and User Experience Design, I find that Cronin’s article boiled-down the context of Maslow’s needs to the perspective of a developer or creator. It is quite easy to say that design isn’t as important as the actual rendering engine and framework of the system. However, when you scale it back UX Design is integral to the modern consumer’s use of a virtual reality system. Without it, this hierarchy is unusable and therefore irrelevant.

My Conclusion

So, how does User Experience impact each of these human needs in VR? I have taken the basic structure from Cronin’s original work and applied them to the revision of Maslow’s hierarchy.

Physicological Needs
  • Maslow’s Examples: Air, Water, Food, Clothing, Reproduction
  • UX Equivalence: User Accessibility of Hardware and Software


For a VR experience to fulfill Physiological Needs, the user should be able to comfortably utilize both hardware and software. This could include (like Cronin referenced) avoiding nausea or disorientation – but it also goes a step further. The user should be able to comfortably manipulate the environment with THEIR body. The most important part of this is that the motion must be natural and purposeful to the user. The usability is vitally important to the hardware and software integration, because different body types require a diversified amount of interaction.


Safety Needs
  • Maslow’s Examples: personal security, shelter, order, law, stability
  • UX Equivalence: Environmental Stability and Understanding


For a VR experience to fulfill Safety Needs, the user should be able to understand the rules of the environment around them. The Virtual Reality experience exists in an alternate world, and like many literary worlds, it needs to have rules and logic for the user to understand. This logic should come from both a literal and figurative sense. Can the user see their surroundings? Can the user interpret their surroundings? The ability to comprehend the environment is also touched upon in Cronin’s article in that perception is everything. Building a world requires a logical structure with correct spatial physics and proper consequences of actions.


Love and Belonging Needs
  • Maslow’s Examples: friendship, intimacy, family, and sense of connection
  • UX Equivalence: User Belongs in Environment


For a VR experience to fulfill Love and Belongingness Needs, the user should be able to have a sense of oneness in the environment. They need to feel like they belong. This may seem like some spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but users need to feel grounded in a reality that they are completely unfamiliar with. Many people first experiencing VR are often timid for this exact reason: they don’t know how they fit into this new world. They don’t know what they can and cannot do, and a guide is often necessary. Similar to the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland or Virgil in the Divine Comedy – we see examples of guides everywhere. This sense of belonging is almost always accompanied by a quest or challenge or comradery. The user is given something to do, an action to complete.


Esteem Needs
  • Maslow’s Examples: (i) esteem for oneself (dignity, achievement, mastery, independence) and (ii) the desire for reputation or respect from others (e.g., status, prestige).
  • UX Equivalence: User Achievement (Fiero)


For a VR experience to fulfill Esteem Needs, the user should be able to complete an action and feel a sense of achievement. The word “fiero” (the Italian word for pride) is referenced in Games UX to represent this concept. It is what a user feels once they have triumphed over adversity or a difficult trial. This could be something small or large but the most important part is that the user is praised for completing the task. Most gaming interactions continue in this cycle of challenge (belongingness) to achievement (esteem) throughout the narrative.


Cognitive Needs

  • Maslow’s Examples: knowledge and understanding, curiosity, exploration, need for meaning and predictability
  • UX Equivalence: User Learning and Exploration


For a VR experience to fulfill Cognitive Needs, the user should be able to gain knowledge and understanding that is valuable to them. They need to be able to explore the environment around them, and learn from that environment in a meaningful way. This is a very important step as it very much solidifies a user’s belongingness within the environment. Curiosity is often underutilized in current VR experiences as user learning and exploration are done through the perspective of a normal human. Playing with scale or perspective is a great way to integrate this into a VR environment.


Aesthetic Needs
  • Maslow’s Examples: appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.
  • UX Equivalence: User Creation and Appreciation


For a VR experience to fulfill Aesthetic Needs, the user should be able to be in awe of the beauty within the experience. Although, I believe this extends beyond artistry. It shouldn’t just be visually appealing, it should integrate the user in its appreciation and creation. A great example of this VR interaction is in the game Luna, in which you have the ability to affect and mold the environment in a delicate and meaningful way that adds to the beauty of it. This allows the user to extend a form of responsibility over the environment. They create it and appreciate that creation, and it is now a part of themselves and their world. Creation mechanisms are used across many places and often in simple ways, but it creates a powerful connection.


Self-Actualization Needs
  • Maslow’s Examples: realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.
  • UX Equivalence: Fully immersed absorption and concentration


For a VR experience to fulfill Self-actualization Needs, the user should be able to seek out personal growth within the environment. It has to affect the user’s world-view and change the user to think, or be, in a way they have not experienced before. I personally think this is where VR shines as a medium. It is this first person point of view that enables users to achieve full immersion into a perspective beyond their everyday surroundings. In this way it is both escapism and realism.


Transcendence Needs
  • Maslow’s Examples: mystical experiences outside of self including certain experiences with nature, aesthetic experiences, sexual experiences, service to others, the pursuit of science, religious faith
  • UX Equivalence: User Takeaway into Physical Reality


For a VR experience to fulfill Transcendence Needs, the user needs to be motivated beyond the VR experience. The user should be shown and taught in a way that affects them personally outside of that virtual reality. I believe in the future VR can expand to fulfill this Transcendence Need – the ability for a person to be motivated beyond their self for the greater good.



Important Links:

“The Hierarchy of Needs in Virtual Reality Development” by Beau Cronin found here.

“Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” by Saul McLeod found here.

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