Squirrel playing in my backyard

Backyard inspiration

Alex reed
5 min readSep 29, 2020

It is 9am, I stare out the window. A grey squirrel bounces down my fence toward the hazelnut tree in the back corner of my yard. I have got to know this squirrel very well over the past year. I haven’t named him but I know a lot about him. Everyday he eats hazelnuts for breakfast and rainier cherries for lunch (when they are in season on my cherry tree). He likes to run, play and make large pieces of beauty bark into wrestling opponents. He is very active in my backyard almost daily.

It was last fall when I first started a UX design program and first noticed him. It has been almost a year since and the days have not changed. He still eats and plays in my yard and I still sit at a table typing, creating UX content and looking for work. It feels like a moment in time that I will look back on someday. I feel like he has been my friend, supporting me while I beat the keys on this MacBook.

In the era of Covid, whether we have a job, looking for work, going to school, creating on our own or just trying to stay relevant in the digital world, having a friend to rely on is needed. Even if he won’t say hello, just his presence brightens my day. So does the coffee!

When I am stuck on a problem or having writer’s block, I look to him for inspiration. It helps to take my mind off difficult subjects or thoughts just by watching him. He is a welcome break from the stresses of life. When I return to my work, I feel refreshed and have renewed focus. This essay is testament to that, after-all I am writing about a squirrel.

It was today when I realized the meaning of the inspiration he provided me.

I like to think of the natural settings when I design elements or write. I look for simple answers that nature provides. What drives people in their behaviors can be found in nature too. The squirrel seems pretty successful in finding food and has been around awhile, so I assume he is able to address his basic needs and move onto his desires. The other living creatures in my backyard follow a similar path. Trees seek out sustenance before building social structures (intertwining roots with others to share resources, budding flower or seeds for propagation of species, etc). Birds, insects, the homeless guy living in my neighbor’s backyard all do the same. I can learn so much by just taking a step back and observing how they go about their lives, addressing their needs.

Thinking about how the simple needs are achieved first is important for figuring out what comes next. You can’t consider complicated processes like how to connect with friends via streaming services if you don’t have a house. How do we get to the point where everything else is addressed before getting to that complicated scenario? The American psychologist Abraham Maslow created the ‘hierarchy of needs’ pyramid to show how people solve for their most basic physiological needs, then move on to satisfying their emotional wants and desires. Food, water, shelter, protection, love are basic needs for survival. Self-esteem, achievement, friendship are what we seek out next, once we know we can survive and subsist on our surroundings.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ pyramid.

Say I want to create a new social media app. Who are my users and what are their needs? It probably isn’t the guy living in a tent in my neighbor’s backyard, he hasn’t satisfied his basic needs yet to the point that he can spend time on my app. Without going into details of his needs, I will leave it that he doesn’t have the time. My ideal user will have their basic and more advanced living needs sorted and have free time to spend as they like. This is an obvious example, but I want to illustrate that users have to be in a position to use your app or service.

This is part of the research where we figure out who our personas/avatars are, what their journeys look like, pain points and needs are. Maslow’s pyramid may not be the best for looking at a consumer’s journey, so now there are some CX versions that speak to the wants of someone in the top tier of Maslow’s pyramid.

Notice how in these three examples there are no basic life needs here. These all represent the top tier of Maslow’s hierarchical needs. All other basic needs have been solved for and the users can focus energy on refining their lifestyle experiences.

On the other hand, apps and services that address more basic needs like financial security or access to food would look to Maslow’s pyramid for guidance. Food banks are not trying to solve for entertainment problems in their service. They need to address basics: Getting food to hungry families. So that is where their user journeys are focused; improving the quality care given to their users. We must recognize where our users are in their life journeys if we want to gain their repeat consumption of our product. This is at the core of what a product offering is.

At the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid we see organizations like food banks addressing the basic needs of food, security and shelter. As we move up the pyramid we see companies like Apple or Twitter who have very specific offerings that address very specific desires, not needs. Knowing your audience and knowing their needs is important for better designs and better products. That is what a lot of the top companies do best. They put a lot of research into how best to meet the needs of their users. We could all do that, starting with the basic items on the pyramid.

It is nice to look to where you are going, but you have to be conscious of what came before you got to the point you are at. A basic-needs based approach to problem solving is a smart strategy that can be utilized in many different topics. Make sure the basics are solved before jumping to the complicated stuff. Otherwise you might be missing something important.

That is a lot of weight to put on one squirrel who is just trying to eat his breakfast. I think he is still happy just the same and would agree with me: The basics come first.