Heads AND Tails for Design Success

Jun 6, 2019

Do you know the difference between usability and desirability? You should – and probably do as a consumer whether you know it or not. But what about the company imagining, creating and developing products, services or experiences? Is your company thinking through the realities of the double-sided coin of design that is inherent in every product and service? 

Here’s a common example:

When you’re ready to purchase a car, usability is an absolute given. You choose an architecture, brand and model fully expecting it will reliably get you from A to B.

Beyond mere usability, you likely want a car that visually and emotionally appeals to you, something that you would enjoy driving each day. That’s desirability – and it is based on your individual aspirations. It’s why you might choose a coupe over a sedan, an SUV over a minivan, German over Japanese.

Let’s take that analogy a step further. Recently I test drove a Tesla Model S. On one hand, it’s just another vehicle delivering the same intended task of transportation. But with the key fob in my hand, which is a miniature version of the car itself, it was as if the car spoke to me and only me. The user experience made me smile, a smile resembling success on the innovation tachometer. 

Each individual experience was expertly delivered. It drove my emotional connection, made me smile (again) and elevated my perception of both vehicle and brand. With that kind of connection, it’s no longer just another car. It’s also a textbook example of how human-centered design works to win the hearts and minds of consumers by translating high level insights into tangible hospitality.

Balancing usability and desirability isn’t just critical for the success of big ticket items like cars, homes and colleges. It matters for all things, even small mundane things like hammers, toasters and coffee shops.  

Next time you’re in a hardware store, notice the number of hammers for sale. They all perform nearly identical tasks. Some have wood handles, others fiberglass or carbon fiber, colors are varied, grips are unique. You’ll notice design beginning to stand out. All of this nuance factors into your perception of your ideal tool. The same is probably true of your coffee or your preferred coffee shop.

 

Usability and desirability is a balancing act

If you create products with great usability and fail to consider desirability, nobody will notice your products, nobody will buy one and you will go out of business.  If you create desirable products that fail to perform their intended tasks, your unhappy customers will tell 10 friends why they should never buy your product (or trust your entire brand),  people will stop buying your product and you will go out of business. We have witnessed both scenarios so many times over the past 2 decades that we have enough evidence to convince our current customers to avoid this outcome by remaining steadfast in the relentless pursuit of best in class desirability and usability. 

Without a respect for a balanced approach to Desirability and Usability, you’re increasing risk and leaving a lot potential on the table (think: sales, profit, market share).

 

Finding balance

Manufacturers don’t struggle creating useful products because they know a lack of usefulness won’t lead to sales or a shelf life. The struggle is in making useful products highly desirable, and that’s often rooted in overcoming an over-fixation on what’s worked in the past versus what people truly need, want and value.

Figuring that out requires a mix of product research, user research and often adjacent benchmarking on closely related products to find out what drives and motivates customers. We also use something we call a Visual Research Tool (VRT) where we vividly visualize the new product, service or experience to stakeholders and get 1-on-1 feedback from the users themselves. This process of a “VRT” helps us discern which attributes resonate, which do not, and why.  Armed with these insights we are then “qualified” to confidently design the new solution, appropriately balancing form and function with its wow factor. 

None of these techniques are failsafe ways to ensure success. Like the previously mentioned hammer. The outcome depends on the skill in which it is wielded. A great and balanced product that ends up in the wrong aisle, with the wrong name, produced in the wrong color, in the wrong package, and tells the wrong story has a lot to overcome to be successful. These are all critical facets of the entire user experience and reasons we spend so much time and effort carefully crafting them all.

But our experience is that clients who have been able to strike a balance between proven usability and tested desirability become so passionate about their product that there’s no missing the point when it comes to the design, the story and sales. That work is validated every time a customer says – “I’ll take it” and later confesses “I love it!

 

Put yourself to the test

As a manufacturer or service provider, it is far too common to undervalue the power of complex qualitative things like desirability.  This is true largely because quantitative things like usability are so simple and easily understood.  It either works or not. We consistently counsel our clients to “fear easy” quantitative data.  It’s a slippery slope, a siren song, a path to commoditization.  Instead we encourage them to “embrace difficult” and lean into the challenge of understanding qualitative things (like desirability) and intentionally seek out the steeper, less traveled narrow path to user experience excellence that yields far greater riches.

Consider this prompt – One warm up question we often ask customers during research is: Tell us about your most delightful user experience with a product within the last six months. Every time we ask this question, they become visibly self-aware that the user experience has as much to do with the product’s desirability as it does its usability. And that is a powerful revelation for all of us. 

To be useful, desired and memorable is the trifecta we all should be aiming to score. 

 

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