Designing for the Ego

Ashley McKee

April 18th, 2007

Ever since Don Norman said, “Simplicity does not sell,” I’ve been keeping an eye on the various responses to his statement.

Gerry McGovern just wrote a piece examining Don’s argument, where he gives various reasons for using complexity to appeal to customers when designing physical products.

…we love to show off. Complexity is like the peacock’s feathers. It is brash and impossible to miss. Complexity lets other people know how clever we are and how rich, because we can afford such complexity…

This is definitely something everyone can relate to. I’ll admit I bought a Motorola Razr the second it came out because it was flashy, laden with features, and made people “oo” and “ah”. Now two years on, I’ve found I don’t use anything on the phone besides talk and the camera. Whether I planned to use the Razr to its full extent or not is irrelevant. I wanted a reaction from my peers.

Everyone is different though. Some people are very minimalist, some people are very high tech, but most people are just caught up in the latest fads. This leads me to wonder if people really care about whether a product is simple or complex, or if people just care that a product is new, trendy, and in high-demand. Apple’s iPod is a simple device, yet it’s the most popular media player in the entire world. Microsoft’s Zune, which has more features than the iPod, isn’t doing so hot. What gives? Is it our ego that drives what we look for in a product? To steal a line from Jared, when someone asks me if I want to see their iPod, I automatically say, “Yes!”, but when someone asks me if I want to see their Sandisk Sansa e280, I give them a weird look.

Moving away from the design of physical products, Gerry asserts that simplicity is king when designing for web sites.

…we can’t wear a Web site, drive around in it or show it off at a party. Browsing a site is essentially private behavior. When we go to Google we are usually alone. We search for cheap flights, but we certainly don’t go around advertising that we’re cheap.

We may still end up buying complex products on the Web, but our Web behavior will remain relentlessly simple and hugely impatient…

Do we just want an effortless way to acquire products that make us feel superior? What do you think?

You can read Gerry’s full article here: Why Simplicity is Essential
to Web Design

[Joshua Porter also wrote an in-depth article addressing this topic. You can read Josh’s article here: Simplicity: The Ultimate Sophistication.]

4 Responses to “Designing for the Ego”

  1. Daniel Szuc Says:

    Random thoughts … Ego can also sneak in when you least expect it when working on projects. Without a focus on the user or a corporate culture that support it, everyone ends up just protecting their own job function or simply just works to meet their deliverables independent of the quality.

    Perhaps design goals up front help to clarify.

  2. Benjamin Ho Says:

    I think this is one area where there can be an improvement. In my own blog, I talk about how Ego is not important and that we’re merely messengers in many cases, but educated messengers that are always here to serve our users and development team. That’s being in the usability profession.

    In regards to obtaining products for flash or to serve your own ego, I don’t believe it has much to do with that – though I can be proven wrong with others’ mindsets. For me, I want to experience certain products, not so much really to “own them so you can see me use it”. I don’t flaunt anything I have as I just use them. And if it so happens that someone asks about it, well, I believe that’s natural so that they are inquisitive about the experience, not the “status” of the product itself.

    I think everyone is in search of a great experience, and unfortunately, many will shell out more than its worth through credit.

  3. Alexander Muir Says:

    Another angle on this is: designing so the rational brain has an excuse to buy.
    If just read Dr Clotaire’s ‘Culture Code’ work where he talks about purchasing decisions basically coming from the instinctive, ‘reptile brain’. Yet it helps sales if the product not only appeals to the reptile brain, but also appeases the rational brain, thus giving it an ‘alibi’ to buy.

    Perhaps a flashy display of features on a phone works as an excuse for the rational brain, whereas the sleek sexy razr itself appeals directly to the reptile.
    So my point is that the display of complexity and nifty features – even though they don’t get used – may be understood in this light.

    Dr Clotaire – who helped design the PT Cruiser along these principles – notes that products we have a gut reaction to (like the Cruiser and the Razr) appeal to the reptile. Sure, some people love it others hate it, but it does have impact.

  4. Ashley McKee Says:

    All very good points. This is definitely an area I plan to do more research in as it has piqued my interest.

    Culture Code is now on my long list of books to read.

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