By Fraser Scott (for designindustry Limited)

Published in the Christchurch Press, 2 November 2005.


It is often said that men approach shopping like hunting.

Men coolly observe from strategic vantage points, dressed in suburban camouflage so as not to attract attention. We patiently wait for favourable conditions, then strike hard and fast. There is no emotion, just a cold exchange of necessity. We strike then disappear back into the crowd.

We like to think that we are detached and rational; balancing alternatives and measuring by purely logical criteria. We are, of course, completely deluding ourselves.

The fact is: buying things is an emotional decision, regardless of gender and regardless of the product.

Whether it's purchasing a new dishwasher, choosing a new brand of razor or finding an accountant, emotions play a bigger part than most of us and men especially tend to admit. We, as flawed human beings, are never completely rational; how we feel about things often overrides what we know or are told about them.

While science and academia seek empirical evidence and deride reliance on emotion and instinct, our purchasing decisions and loyalty to certain brands tend to be based on the sum of our experiences, suspicions, prejudices and gut feel about the products or services in question.

This goes beyond a desire to remain with the familiar and reveals the fact that we like the sense of attachment; we like being loyal to certain producers or suppliers. It gives us a sense of belonging and community in what is an otherwise fragmented and disjointed world.

If you think that sounds like it is overstating the case, talk to a lifelong Mac user, a Holden fanatic or a committed fan of any New Zealand rugby team.

So if a product or a service really connects with us; really gets to the heart of what we are about and makes us feel good, then most of us are willing to wave the flag and wear the t-shirt.

The fourth designindustry design quality principle is user-focus. This principle highlights the importance of design showing empathy for, and connecting with, the user of a product or service.

The principle of user-focus suggests that we, as consumers, need to be thought of as real people with real needs. A successful design will reach out and touch us; it will surprise us with just how well-conceived it is. It will be as if the designer read our minds and come up with the very thing we needed with just the right feel and features. We'll feel like for once, somebody has understood us.

Most people have a relatively short list of products and services that have achieved this level of success with them. Often they represent what Kevin Roberts calls lovemarks: brands that evoke feelings of genuine affection from consumers.

Some of the names that you might see on peoples product/service warm fuzzy lists include Google, Speights, Sony, Body Shop, and 42 Below. The products and services represented by these brands are focused on giving you, the user, an experience that is different from the competition, easy, pleasurable and adherent to a certain set of consistent values.

Their goal is to make a human connection between the products and you; to forge a friendship that lasts a lifetime. This is the Holy Grail for most companies.

Like all relationships, the loyalty that a user-focused product or service can create is based on shared values: we connect with them if we feel we have some common ground; if we both stand for and want the same things. The values that connect us with products might be as simple as reliability and value, or as distinctive as funkyness and free-spiritedness. Concern for the environment and social action are also frequently espoused values.

Unfortunately many companies just invent values that don't actually exist internally, and are not evident in their products. Take Enron for example.

In Enron's 1999 financial report they state their values as: communication, respect, excellence and integrity. They state specifically that ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don't belong here.

Two years later Enron collapsed in a quagmire of insider trading, questionable accounting and fraud of such arrogance and breathtaking boldness, that Enron is now a textbook case of business ethics gone wrong.

But we consumers are not fooled but the puffery and posing of companies that claim to stand for all sorts of caring human values, but deliver to us products and services that show an ignorance of our needs or, worse, a complete disdain for us as users.

All of us have experienced services that treat us as less than individuals of value. Some would suggest that some government departments are entirely based on this premise.

Most of us have also been tempted to destroy products in dramatic fashion because of the sheer frustration of trying to use them. These frustrating products are often grouped together under the banner technology.

Maybe in the past we might have been inclined to doubt ourselves; to conclude that we are the weak link in the chain. Nowadays, however, we are much more inclined, in a world of choices, to reject the product, dismiss the producer, and look elsewhere.

Design demands that the designer understand the end user. User-focus requires that the product or service being designed empowers and enables the intended consumer.

Failure to take heed of this design principle and to show the end user due respect is a recipe for a limited commercial future.