Designing for Want


“If only we could make people value their health more and start being more active, lose weight or quit smoking”, “If only we could encourage more people to participate in research trials”, “if only we could get people to test their smoke alarms regularly”, “If only we could make people call NHS 111 before they go to the Emergency Department at the hospital”, “If only we could get more people into our stores, engaging with our brand, engaging with us on social media, buying our products, telling their friends…”

Sometimes it’s a one off activity, other times it’s a more ongoing process, but most of us are in the business of trying to get other people to do something different. We are in the business of behaviour change.

There was a time I lived in the world of ‘needs assessments’. I worked in the Welsh public health system and everywhere we looked there was need. Needs assessments are processes that focus our attention on the things that we believe will have the greatest impact for our limited resources. We paid the most attention to communities where unemployment and underemployment, housing, transport, poverty, poor education, poor health and complex social problems were combined and compounded the difficulties the people in them faced getting through life.

We would strategically agree a way forward, create the services that were needed, and watch as they were often met with little more than apathy from the people we wished to help the most.

It was a humbling lesson in the difference between need and want. People may have needed the services we provided, but they didn’t want them, or want them enough to overcome the effort of accessing them.

Many services built upon the outcome of a needs analysis don’t manage to create the demand that would make them sustainable; they aren't desirable enough or presented in an appealing way. Other services, such as the Emergency Department for example, have been so well designed to cater for what people want (rather than need), that they are overrun and we have the reverse job of trying to make them a little less attractive an option – unless the Emergency Department is where you actually need to be of course!

For the 12 years since my public health days I’ve been in the world of behavioural economics exploring what makes a product or service more desirable for people, exploring what humans instinctively prefer and desire. I think of it as a code, almost a rule book. It’s a fallible code, but it does offer an advantage, and when we are talking about products and services that cost millions of pounds to deliver, any way of drawing attention, raising engagement and adherence to make them more successful and efficient is worthwhile.

This is the Desire Code.

Today I start a series of blogs that will dive into making products and services more wantable, more appealing. More desirable.