Content Strategy

MAYA: Reconciling customer wants versus needs

It happens every day: Someone has an idea for something new and flashy, and suddenly it’s off to the races – a new gizmo gets designed or developed, or even launched.

But if you take the time to actually think through your customer’s needs, you might save a lot of heartache (and money).

Flipping through the annals of failed products can illustrate this. Crystal Pepsi? The Edsel? Coors Rocky Mountain Spring Water (really?)?

“Sure, we asked our customers what they wanted, and that’s what we designed!” a product marketer will say. But there’s a not-so-subtle distinction between want and need. And while customers may say they want something new and flashy and faster, really, they need something that works — reliably and consistently, with some comfortable familiarity.

Raymond Loewy, often considered the “father of industrial design,” was an early proponent of integrating good design into consumer products – in a way to resonated with customers. As a recent Atlantic article from Derek Thompson described, Loewy had an insight that has shaped our modern work: “[C]onsumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new.”

That is, Consumers are curious about new, and may believe they want new – but they often prefer (and need) the familiar, the proven.

Loewy called this insight “MAYA – Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” – and it perfectly sums up the need to balance innovation with proven familiarity. When designing new products, think about keeping some of what people know and trust. Certainly push the envelope – but carefully find the point where innovation becomes too unfamiliar.

This is tricky, of course, but well-designed consumer research can help. Test your designs at various levels of innovation and newness, and see which consumers prefer. Test extensively to make sure you’re not catering just to the technophiles, who may have greater comfort with more advanced options. As Loewy summarized, “One should design for the advantage of the largest mass of people.” After all, that’s what will sell.


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