Which is more important, needs or wants?

Which is more important, needs or wants?


We inevitably toss around the words “need” and “want” at some point in a project. We talk about what is more important in today’s world. They can have nuanced meanings depending on the point in the project. Do you throw these words around during your development process? If so, what’s your philosophy on it?

When we are doing research it is important to identify people’s true needs. If you address a need, you create purpose. You have identified what some would consider essential and therefore create a reason to be. It is often based on functionality and can be measured. It is quantitative.

If you address a need, you create purpose.

How do you identify what people want? Why is it important to do so? This is where we often find people talking about “trend”, not a word we often use in our office. It implies that something can be made desirable if you follow other successes in the world or the marketplace. It also implies a level of impermanence, something that will soon be replaced by the next trend. While I think trend has its place for certain businesses, it is not getting to the heart of “want” as we think of it at MGA&D. What someone wants is emotional. It is about engaging someone, transfixing them, “striking their senses” as my colleague and mentor Donald Strum likes to say. It is not measurable. It is qualitative. It is love.

We hear the words need and want later in projects as well. Often when we come to the table to try and trim the fat. What does this “need” to do, and what do we “want” it to do. While the words need and want are used, it is only a tactical way of asking what is “necessary” and “unnecessary”. It is a tactic for discussing cost that I understand, but I also believe there is a better way to look at it.

So as with all things in life, it is about balance.

We discuss it in terms of value. You have to understand both the costs and value of a thing. It is easy to say, but hard to do. Costs are very black and white, just like those ‘needs”. Value is a feeling, a perception, it is those wishy-washy “wants”. If you create something that purely addresses a need, it may be useful but not desirable. It will only be successful if it has no competition. Where in today’s world do we see products with no competition? If you create something that someone wants but it has no useful function, it is frivolous and very soon you will fall out of love with it because it does not address a need. So as with all things in life, it is about balance. We call it the value proposition. To create the right value proposition takes knowledge of competitive offerings, keen instinct, and vision.

When we designed the Prime TC with Stryker Medical, it all came down to the value proposition. If we had only addressed needs and cost, we would have simply built another wheelchair that would have overlooked some incredible opportunities. Instead we worked out a value proposition that blended the needs and wants of anyone who came in contact with it. The outcome was a more expensive price tag, but we were able to address unmet needs that had originally been categorized as “wants”. By doing this, we designed a product that reduced theft, spread of infection, patient falls, and clinician back strain. These unmet needs had very real costs. Through a robust value proposition we were able to create a product that delivers a superior experience, and it looks great too!

Think about a decision you made today, this week, or this month. Think of a moment where you had to make a choice. What drove that choice? Did you go with only fulfilling a need, meeting a base level of utilitarian functionality? Did you choose something that you wanted, even though you had no need for it, an impulse buy? Or did you make a decision to go with the option that fulfilled a need in a way that made you want it? I’m willing to say you went with the latter, if it was an option. I believe this is where we are as a society. We live in a world of choice. When it comes down to need vs. want, I think want tends to win out more and more. We know we need more exercise, yet we also know we want that cookie. What wins out?

I believe in using design to blur the lines so that doing what you need to do, is also what you want to do.

I believe it is good to want things. It plays to the human condition. I believe in using design to blur the lines so that doing what you need to do, is also what you want to do. Technology continues to blur these lines with items like fitness trackers, making needs fun so that we want them. We apply this thinking not only to buildings, spaces, and products, but to business, industry and strategy as well. Let me know how you have leveraged design to address needs and wants on twitter @vanvarick.

Tags: design strategy, design research, humanism, product design, Design Thinking
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