Hierarchy of E-Commerce UX Needs

February 22, 2023

We adapt the famous Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to propose a 5-tier model that instead looks specifically at the needs and motivations of your online stores’ customers.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

This probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard of the legendary Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. But just to recap: this theory describes a journey through which human motivations progress, suggesting that, in order for humans to maximize fulfilment of top-tier ‘needs’, we should first satisfy our more basic ones.

What’s this got to do with e‑commerce?

Similarly, when visiting an online store, your audience has ‘needs’, and some are more foundational than others. We’ve put on our creative caps and built our own hierarchy that applies Maslow's concept within an e-commerce and user experience context.

Before we talk about each stage of our hierarchy in detail, we want to note that (as with Maslow’s hierarchy) people don’t necessarily need to fulfill everything in a lower tier before they’re able to fulfill elements within higher tiers. It’s more that those higher tier items tend to be more valuable when lower needs are met firstly.

Here’s how we’re suggesting the needs of your site visitors stack up. From the bottom up...

Our hierarchy of e-commerce UX needs

Functional needs: customers are able to buy your products

First up, your customers’ most concrete need: to be able to buy. For this, your site’s got to have nailed the basics. For instance, your store will load in a manageable amount of time that doesn’t leave the customer wondering if it’s broken (using a modern platform like Shopify will promise this). Moreover, your customers will be able to successfully add-to-cart and check out. They might even be able to apply promotional offers and discounts.

Ideas for reaching this stage:

  • Be on a scalable platform that can handle traffic. You’ll want your site up and running, no matter what.
  • Be conscious of how different screen sizes can affect layouts to prevent your store breaking on certain screens.
  • Ensure products that are available on site, have inventory available to ship.
  • Make sure the product details match the item for sale e.g. appropriate size chart, description.
  • Make sure that, when added to cart, product details match what’s shown on the Product Detail Page (PDP), e.g. price, colour, name, size.
  • Core accessibility requirements are met e.g. a customer can check out using tabs

Stretch projects:

  • Link Google Analytics to start learning about your customer.
  • Improve access to customer service e.g. don’t just link to an email address on a standalone page, consider adding live chat that’s visible on all pages.
  • Align product photography across pages so the store looks reputable.

Safety & trust needs: customers can easily buy your products

Second to an ability to buy, is the want to do this with ease. At this stage, your users want to feel confident they’re on a legitimate website and not question whether or not it’s your brand’s official one. What they’ll also be seeking here, is a fluid path to purchase. They want to be able to shop without hesitation or setbacks.

Ideas for reaching this stage:

  • Ensure your brand identity elements are baked into your site.
  • Make sure company contact details and social handles are visible.
  • Add reviews to product pages.
  • Add ‘trusted logos’ in the site footer and checkout e.g. payment methods, security.
  • Review navigation and, where can you, consolidate and expand categories to help the customer journey.
  • Refine how discounts and sales are viewed (add product badging, use different colours or fonts to indicate discounted prices).

Stretch projects:

  • Add reviews to checkout to up audience trust (and reduce abandoned carts)
  • Add wishlist feature (best for large assortment stores)
  • Add collections’ page filtering
  • Add quick-add functionality

Love & belonging needs: customers can enjoy the shopping experience

As we move up to the third level, we look beyond your store being functional and reliable, to also offering something of hedonic value. Here, customers seek enjoyment from the likes of immersive visuals, a speedy site, complex promotions, and improved customer service integrations e.g. live chat, virtual support, accessible via phone as well as email.

Ideas for reaching this stage:

  • Introduce small animations that make the experience unique, such as the slide-out animations we built for our client, Third Man Records, which appear when a user quick-views a record.
  • Allow customers to save down key product information so they don’t have to reselect during the shopping experience e.g. auto populate all t-shirt PDPs to a size large once this has been selected during the shopping journey.
  • Populate image carousel with a model in a relevant size e.g. show a model in a size Large t-shirt.
  • Review your site visuals and see where you can bring things back in line with your style guide to ensure consistency
  • Introduce a loyalty program (check out our client, Skinnydip’s)
  • Introduce NPS tracking, let customers self-report recommendations/frustrations and refine based on this feedback.

Stretch projects:

  • Create a VIP experience (early access perks, exclusive content, exclusive designs, etc)
  • Allow customers to customize the product images they view (e.g. model that matches size and/or skin tone, home environment that matches their own etc)

Esteem/fandom needs: customers see the store experience as an example of their personal brand

Now, we move up to esteem/fandom needs. Here, customers want to see themselves represented in their shopping experience. They want to be able to tell their friends as much about the purchased item as they do about their experience picking it out. Customers lean on limited product drops, visualization tools and personalized email campaigns to feel special.

Ideas for reaching this stage:

  • Connect in-store shopping with online, such as allowing customers to earn loyalty points, or find relevant items e.g. Sephora accesses customers' online order details in store if they want to buy a repeat product but need to confirm details such as shade.
  • Offer a product recommendations quiz to help customers discover the right size/style/blend.
  • Implement functionality that allows customers to view products in situ and experiment with customization e.g. the chain-builder Layering Lab we built for Missoma.
  • Invite customers to subscribe to marketing, to ensure they never miss the latest items on offer.
  • Allow customers to view shipping costs before checkout to get the whole picture of their cart.
  • Make product reviews detailed and sortable.
  • Ensure email campaigns offer unique recommendations and offers based on recipient’s purchase history and loyalty status.

Stretch projects:

Personalization needs: customers feel uniquely understood

In the final tier, customer needs are complex as they look to be met with personalized products and support, in lightning-quick speed. They see the shopping experience as an extension of their personal brand and feel entirely understood. Not only do they expect their purchase history to be taken into account with how stores are personalized, but their return/exchange behaviour, loyalty tier, location and more. They might also want their products to be custom to them, whether that be through engraving, tailoring, or custom combinations.

Ideas for reaching this stage:


We hope this little adaptation helps you understand the needs of your customers and work more orderly on your UX efforts to fulfill these. As you apply our suggestions, however, don’t forget that your customer needs will change over time. The tech available to e-commerce merchants is rapidly evolving, and with it, so are customer expectations.


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