The head of Harvard’s Desirability Lab examines what consumers like and why so designers can create products that hit the sweet spot.
It’s human nature to want things, but have you ever wondered why some objects or products affect you more than others? Dr. Beth Altringer, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, has dedicated her life’s work to that question. Her research focuses on what makes some designs more desirable than others, and she also founded the Desirability Lab, a think tank that “combines psychological research and hands-on design” to help creative innovators design products and services that will change lives. She gives us some insight into what people really want, even if they don’t realize it.
What purpose does desirability serve?
At its core, desirability is about both contextual and emotional decision making. We have intuitive and deliberate ways of thinking that help us survive and make sense of the world. In order to get it right, you need to develop ways to assess desire within context and to account for subjectivity. In terms of primal instinct, we have to make sense of our environment so we can assess threat and make decisions about how we spend our time.
Why should we be interested in learning more about the psychology of desire?
Because we’re influenced by desires whether we’re deliberate about it or not. Developing a lens for desirability helps us to design better products, services and decision-making environments. It also helps us resist persuasive campaigns that aren’t in our best interests. My goal is two-fold—to educate designers to create better products and services, and to educate individual decision makers to take a more active role in their decisions about what products and services enter their lives.
What’s the biggest misconception we hold about what makes something desirable or not?
The most common misconception I see is the assumption that other people will like what we like. It’s basically confirmation bias: “This is really cool, therefore everyone will think the same.” This is a very human tendency, and while it’s quite useful in many ways, it’s also high-risk. It’s important to implement mechanisms that slow down decision making and to develop a checks-and-balances system for your design process where you have some openness in your feedback.
What surprising or unexpected discoveries have you made?
That what we notice is often replicated in what we make. I feel like it’s a dialogue of creation and consumption—we’re kind of figuring out who we are through the artifacts that we bring into our lives. I’ve developed this habit of noticing and analyzing what students find desirable and undesirable in their world; I can see the conversation they’re trying to have with the world through what they create and consume. We tend to think of these things separately, but looking at it as a dialogue helps us figure out who we are. It’s fascinating and quite empowering when people embrace it. Until you understand how a product figures into people’s lives in a really delightful way, you haven’t truly figured out its design.
What is creativity?
There are different levels of creativity—researchers describe it as the little C, middle C and big C of creativity. The little version is putting coconut milk in your coffee—that’s a little bit of creativity, and we all do that. The middle C is something in your job that you’re doing that’s unusual but noticeably creative. The big C is the game-changing creativity often seen in the media. Being creative is part of being human, and we’re all doing it all the time.
How can people apply the nature of desirability to help with creative problem solving?
If you do one thing, develop the habit of noticing and analyzing the details of the world around you. What do you like and what don’t you like, and why? The important thing is taking the time and committing to yourself. If you can find those patterns then you can develop your career around those patterns, because you probably won’t get tired of those core themes.
“Until you understand how a product figures into people’s lives in a really delightful way, you haven’t truly figured out its design”