Blog — Ask people what they want (but don’t let them have their way)

It has become a trend: obsession with real estate websites. Many people spend hours each day scrolling through real estate listings, whether they plan to buy a house or not.

Like any serious digital organization, real estate websites such as Funda in the Netherlands keep visitor statistics. These statistics are interesting for designers — including those who have nothing to do with the real estate business.

So what do the statistics say? Most visitors of Funda look at stand-alone homes. Apparently, that’s what we want most: a spacious house with a garden, separated from direct neighbors. But these are not the homes we end up buying. Most Dutch people live in a — more modest — terraced house.

What we want is not what we do

This, of course, is nothing new. Between dreams and actions lies reality. Knowing perfectly well that you can’t afford your dream home, doesn’t stop you from fantasizing about it. But that’s not all.

Everyone who has started the year with a fresh gym membership knows it can be very hard to tell what it is you really want. And then to actually do it. Unsurprisingly, the Internet is now teeming with articles that warn: “Do not ask people what they want! They do not know what they want. And if they do know, they will not act on it.”

Why should designers care?

When we start the design of a website, we regularly interview end users: the people who will use the site. Our clients really want to know what these people want. That’s understandable, and I don’t mind asking. In some cases, that is.

What you shouldn’t do

Most people like to be friendly and helpful. So if you ask “Can you imagine using this product or service?”, the answer will often be affirmative. Perhaps your conversation partner is just being polite. It is also possible that they really mean it and readily see themselves using the product or service.

But just because someone can imagine doing something, doesn’t mean that they actually will. Especially not if they are considering it at your request. If you really want to know what people are going to do, past behavior is usually a better (although not infallible) indicator. You could even try using artificial intelligence. Find some hard data!

Start a conversation

Still, asking someone what they want does make sense: it’s a good conversation starter. Because what you really want to know is context, and the underlying motivation. The next question should, therefore, be: ‘Why do you want that?’

You really need to get to know the user: you can’t properly design a solution without understanding what the problem is. If you understand the underlying needs and desires, you could end up seeing a multitude of different possibilities. The best solution might be exactly what the customer came up with. But that certainly doesn’t have to be the case.

The better you know your users, the better your design becomes. Asking people what they want is fine. Just don’t let them have their way.

The Dutch version of this article by Maaike de Laat, senior UX designer at SILO, has previously been published in Marketing Tribune.

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