Building for Beliefs

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There are numerous processes that designers use to pinpoint a user’s needs. These processes have been honed so well over time that we have become very good at it and can design applications that address their needs. But “needs” are often translated to things that users buy most often, their affordability, geography, delivery preferences, etc., that can be classified as base-level requirements on the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs à la user experience design. But is it possible to address the user’s higher-level needs?

As of today, users make choices between brands in order to do this. If you care about the environment, you probably make the choice of buying your groceries from Godrej Nature’s Basket or Namdhari’s (the Indian equivalents of Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods). Can design help the user make this choice without having to compromise on their needs?

A New Set of Choices

A recent experiment by Ideo using AI to create a “belief-based checkout” attempted to do exactly this by addressing a user’s values in the grocery section. It allowed the user to essentially tell the system whether they are environmentally friendly, prefer locally grown foods and want organic choices more frequently than others. If they were a college student, one can imagine that these preferences would be led by affordability as the main attribute, and so they would see cookies, instant noodles, and microwave meals in their list of recommendations. Thus, the result of declaring these preferences would allow the grocery store to list and recommend products according to the user’s values as opposed to pure, statistically driven analysis.

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The way grocery shopping is done today, one makes a shopping checklist prior to going out and purchasing their groceries. With belief checkout, the shopping checklist will not only reflect their basic needs, but also their values and beliefs. Those values are reflected in the products that they will consume on a daily basis, until the next time.

This system puts forward a new design thinking — designing for values rather than needs. One of the benefits here, of course, is for the designer. It gets us out of the difficult position of trying to convince the user to buy something they don’t need, it helps us create less clutter on interfaces and most importantly, we don’t have to internally battle between what is right for the user and what is right for the business. But maybe that’s just me ranting. The real benefit, of course, is that the user is presented with the exact choices based on their real preferences.

By banking on values when we design, we can ethically validate that the user has made the right decision, whatever it is — a huge ethics win for designers! This advocates the concept of building complete systems as well, rather than singular products, because a designer must always be aware of the whole system when taking attributes into consideration.

Where It Can Go Awry

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Could this really be a model for businesses to start addressing the higher needs of users? Well, sure, but there are also some issues here. For one, the user may declare that they value the environment while constantly making choices that don’t reflect that value. Would highlighting this discrepancy engender hatred towards the brand?

Second, we understand that there are companies out there building very strong profiles of users. Would including these psychographic descriptors within these profiles be a good thing in the long run? One may argue that this is already happening without the explicit approval of users.

Regardless of these flaws, the move towards addressing the higher-level needs of a user is a good one that we as user experience designers must pursue. Finding the best path forward will be the challenge we need to overcome.

— Akshitha Praveen and Shana Singh, Experience Designers, Redd Experience Design