How deep is deep?

Ever since the publication of Henry Dreyfuss’ book ‘Designing for People’ (1955) there has been general agreement in the design field that gaining insights into what people need, supports designing products that meet those needs. The idea of design driven by these types of insights is one of the main elements of ‘design thinking’ that has been adopted in sectors outside the traditional design domain, particularly in the private sector. Roger Martin (2009) for example wrote in his book ‘The design of business: why design thinking is the next competitive advantage’ that deep, user-centred understanding is an essential tool of the design thinker, and many others have argued that deep user or customer insights contribute to radical innovation.

At the same time it is becoming increasingly popular to talk about people’s ‘whys’. Simon Sinek talks in his incredibly popular Ted-X presentation about the need to communicate the ‘why’ of your business. And Paul Hekkert and Matthijs van Dijk (2011) describe how insights into the ‘why’ of people can provide a means to design the ‘reason for existence’ of products in their book ‘Vision in Design, a guide book for innovators’.

There seems to be a relationship between the deep insights and the whys but when I started looking into what all these people mean when they talk about deep insights, it became apparent that the definition of ‘deep’ is rather blurry. I started to ask myself the question ‘how deep is deep?’, and I was particularly interested in how deep you need to go to be able to radically innovate.

To answer that question it is necessary to identify different levels of depth in customer or user insights. From the work of Hekkert and van Dijk and Sinek, it seems clear that there are at least a ‘what’, ‘how’, and ‘why’ level. The ‘what’ level describes what people want, the solutions and their characteristics. The ‘how’ level describes how people want to interact with a solution in certain circumstances. And the ‘why’ level describes why they want it that way.

At this point I started zooming in at the ‘why’ level and started comparing it to the work of Kees Dorst on problem framing (2011). When we are talking about radical innovation it is important to look at which activities lead to such radical innovations. Many people agree that (re-) framing the problem is an essential element. The next question then is how you can reframe a problem. Many have argued that this is a bit of a mysterious process that largely depends on the creativity and expertise of the designer. However, Kees Dorst found, through studying the practices of expert designers in detail, that framing is supported by the exploration of ‘themes’. An understanding of this process unveils a large part of the mystery of framing.

Themes are a construct that is taken from phenomenology. Themes are defined by the philosopher van Manen (1990) as the ‘structures of experiences’. They are closely related to human values and meanings. Think of words such as ‘belonging’, ‘guidance’, ‘contribution’, ‘trust’ etc. Because themes are relatively stable and are shared across many people, they can be explored independently of the problem. Such explorations then support a reframe of the problem.

Back to the deep insights and the whys. When I started comparing the themes to the whys that Hekkert and van Dijk describe, I discovered that some of them are clearly related to themes, and others are more related to what I call ‘goals’. The difference between the two is that themes can be described and explored outside the context of the specific design problem, but that goals always directly related to the problem itself. Hekkert and van Dijk for example describe the trend that youth increasingly uses text messages to communicate with friends. When designing a mobile phone this is an insight that directly relates to the design of a mobile phone. The underlying theme here is for example ‘belonging’, wanting to belong to a group of friends.

A four-layer model of human Needs and Aspirations for Design and Innovation

Based on these insights I developed a four-layer model of Needs and Aspirations for Design and Innovation (NADI-model). The top level consists of the solutions level. It describes what types of solutions people want or need. For example, I asked one of my friends what she liked about her newly acquired Audi TT and she said she liked the car seat heating and the convertible top. The second level in the model is the scenario level. It describes how people want to interact with solutions in certain scenarios. For example, my friend indicated that she liked it that when she was driving it on her own she would get a lot of attention. She also liked how the car was very easy to manoeuvre through heavy traffic. The third level is the goal level. It describes what people want to achieve with a solution, within the context of that design problem. My friend indicated that she loved it that she had this car all to herself. This was her car. Her goal was to have a car just for her. But when I finally asked her if this was her dream car, and if so why, she answered that now her kids were old enough to drive their own cars, she finally did not need a people mover anymore. The car symbolised her newly found sense of independence. This sense of ‘independence’ is what I would call a theme. The car also clearly relates to her sense of ‘identity’ as she was referring to liking getting attention while driving the car. Independence and identity are themes that everyone experiences in a way and you can explore them outside the context of designing a car.

The different needs and aspirations of my friend for her car.
The different needs and aspirations of my friend for her car.

Car designers are experts at the themes that underlie the design of cars and I guess they implicitly apply these insights in their design and do not need a NADI-model in order to do so. The whole point of introducing a four-layer model instead of just three layers, is that making explicit how themes contribute to reframing problems, and through that to radical innovation, might support non-expert designers in these processes. In a next blog I will use the work of Kees Dorst to explain how themes can be explored and how that feeds into a radical innovation process.


The NADI-model applied to my friend's needs and aspirations
The NADI-model applied to my friend’s needs and aspirations


  • Dorst, Kees. “The Core of ‘Design Thinking’ and Its Application.” Design Studies 32, no. 6 (2011): 521-32.
  • Dreyfuss, Henry. Designing for People.  NYC: Simon & Schuster, 1955.
  • Hekkert, Paul, and Matthijs van Dijk. Vision in Design, a Guidebook for Innovators.  Amsterdam: BIS Publishers, 2011.
  • Martin, Roger. The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is the Next Competitive Advantage.  Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2009.
  • Sinek, Simon. “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.”,
  • van der Bijl – Brouwer, Mieke, and Kees Dorst. “How Deep Is Deep? A Four-Layer Model of Insights into Human Needs for Design Innovation.” In Proceedings of the Colors of Care: The 9th International Conference on Design & Emotion, edited by J. Salamanca, P. Desmet, A. Burbano, G. Ludden and J. Maya, 280-87. Bogotá: Ediciones Uniandes, 2014.
  • van Manen, Max. Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy.  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990.

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