The Simple Art of Human-Centred Design

By Matter of Form

In a deafeningly noisy world, brands are feeling the need to overcomplicate – oversaturating markets with convoluted methods to connect; forgetting that, when we strip everything back, humans are fundamentally simple beings.

Pleasure is built in the mind. An intricate web of chemical messengers, stimulated by all kinds of things. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. Also exercise, our favourite foods, shopping. All common triggers, but none of them contain pleasure. 

It’s the same with brands. They may exist in the world around us, but they’re made in our minds. Built through bias and personal association, reinforced by memories. 

So how we shape thought shapes value. 

In 2012, rare wine trader Rudy Kurniawan was arrested. For years, he’d been deceiving wine collectors out of millions with a fictitious vintage and mislabelled bottles. Rudy was confident, he told great stories, he built associations for his clientele (later victims), he reinforced value. 

Rudy Kurniawan, Wine trader Arrested

Hilariously, several people who fell for the scam refused to believe they had. The sunk cost bias was so high, a handful of collectors can’t see what Rudy did as a con. That’s how high their levels of authentic pleasure were. 

Rudy went to jail for a decade the year after his arrest, but the case exemplifies a basic truth that’s become invaluable to branding:  

You can’t quantify the value of experience. 

Contextualising Behaviour

Our sense of identity is shaped by the cultures we associate with. As it becomes increasingly difficult to highlight points of difference in a world where everything looks the same (phones, homes, routines), we link ourselves to culture to create a narrative that expresses our story.

Today, parents exist on the same social channels as their kids. An unprecedented concept that is now normalised fact. Historically, the luxury customer had no connection with ‘the backpacker’ archetype or the savvy spender.

Now, we’ve got these far more flexible customers – a broad spectrum of status and influence and that once-’exclusive’ aspect of luxury has become so easily attainable that we’ve shifted from money-can’t-buy product to money-can’t-buy experience.

In turn, true empathy with our customers is fading.

Because we’re all loaded with our own bias, brands must work harder to understand their audiences as people, not as a demographic. Each living in an internet of one where the world’s preferences organise themselves around the individual’s, making the challenge of seeing the world through the unique lens of the person we’re dealing with significantly more taxing.

As our collective relationship with technology has flattened, we’ve got a customer who’s more flexible, but more frenzied. Unable to work out who they are or what to buy above the unending noise. 

They’ve got more free cash but because they’re more exposed to the entire value chain, they’re tighter. They’re value-sensitive. 

Thanks to remote working, they have more time to travel as they’re untethered, but they’re time-poor because they’re always on. 

They’re better researched, but that research results in a greater level of confusion. Even in nicher market like modern luxury, which is largely lightening up. 

Look at collaborations between people like Francis Bourgeouis, Gucci and The North Face. As we devour content, moving from one thing to the next, we’re finding new heroes; human, accessible, quirky, ‘do’ers’. They star in the stories we engage with, not limited to the worlds of film and fashion.

When anything and everything we want to see can be found online, we’re collectively going further afield to find what’s unique; simultaneously moving further inward to find a transformative point of change. 

Still a scarcity in a noisy world, luxury has become the most prevalent economic force. ‘Survival’, particularly for the lucky segment that is the high net worth, has become easy so social and cultural value is now what defines the individual.

It’s why Bernard Arnault of LVMH who creates perceived value is worth more than Zuckerberg who creates utility. 

With Growth Comes Noise

The problem with more options in our markets is that differentiation becomes exponentially harder. Worsened by the knowledge that the armour of the affluent and enlightened in the context of this noise is to be hypersensitive to cliché. 

Even great hospitality brands fall victim to overused expressions. If we consider the messaging of some of our capital’s iconic postcodes, “in the heart of London” (or some borough-based variation of that well-worn phrase) appears relentlessly. To stress the unfeeling imprecision of this expression, an obvious fact: everywhere can accurately be described as the heart of somewhere. Without precision, the value-add is null and void. 

Outside of the urban, the ‘wild’ has become softened and sanitised. Imagery looks voyeuristic and brand assets cling to cliché like a desert oasis. Dominant semiotics in the category are passive, posed, still, glossy and gauzy; pulling cues from the world of wellness, spas and magazines. They lack personality or uniqueness, often feeling like they could be stock, or belong to any competitor.

As growth breeds noise, with noise comes homogenisation. Which only serves to fuel anxiety as instead of seeing opportunities to be different in a homogenised world, everyone tries to keep up with the Joneses. 

With so many channels, so much haste and so much tech, we have to move from the cut-throat competition of luxury’s red ocean to clear waters of blue where there’s space to be distinctive.

Historically, luxury has been terrible at marketing. More so the science of it. As a rule, luxury marques haven’t been confident or creative enough to consider what it takes to find a distinctive place in people’s minds. Their product is normally so differentiated, cognitive immersion is seen as unnecessary to boardroom heavyweights.

But in a digital world where everything looks the same online, perhaps we need to go back to some of the marketing tactics that have been so fruitful in the midmarket. Ensuring the distinctiveness of ideas and their executions is the most important thing to strive for. 

It’s how we build positive memory structures over the long term that result in positively-perceived brand value and preference.

Throw out phrases that are empty and hyperbolic. Fluffy language appeals to exactly no one, certainly not the discerning customer; because in these contexts ubiquity is unconvincing. People want clarity, brevity, precision; action instead of empty promises. 

As Schopenhauer put in profoundly simple terms: Use common words to say uncommon things. 

With human-centred design, it’s about using the fundamentals of expected behaviour to do the unexpected. There are many human truths that can inform behavioural design, too many to name. So let’s look at four heuristics to place brands front of mind through architected behaviours. 

1. Story & Anchoring

Stories are everywhere, and as humans, we strive for them. And while the formats change, the fundamentals don’t. 

“No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.” – Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate 

Stories are the reason nutmeg could buy a ship in the Middle Ages. Stories give context to Warhol’s art; pieces that defy conventional notions of craft. And more recently they’ve bestowed value unto some dejected-looking apes

Story is the reason Häagen-Dazs has an umlaut despite being a brand borne in The Bronx in the 60s. At a time when America was producing faster, cheaper and ‘crappier’ than ever, the brand’s founders, married Polish immigrants Reuben and Rose Mattus, wanted to create a product that stood out in an overcrowded, homogenous market. 

Häagen Dazs ice-cream on table

Designed to sound Danish, the name Häagen-Dazs doesn’t actually mean anything and the Danish language doesn’t use umlauts in any way. But ask any passerby where the ice cream icons came from and they won’t throw Bronx back at you. So the foreign allure plot paid off, very happily for both the brand and buyers as one of the world’s most successful ice cream brands to this day. 

We know that stories are a priceless form of social capital. And they become important in a world where everything is driven by comfort and convenience – the traditional tenets of luxury.

But what once defined luxury has been totally enabled by tech. Convenience has become table stakes. Life has become easy for the U/HNW. There’s no arc, no tension, no story. And therefore, nothing to strive for. 

Though there’s no quick fix for the widespread decline of storification, brands can take solace in the knowledge that we are hardwired to relate to them. The hero’s journey in particular. An individual hears a call to adventure, goes through trials and failures, (spiritual) death and rebirth, a revelation and returns transformed. 

By incorporating this narrative structure into the brand experience—treating it like a story that unfolds through the stages of Dream, Discover, Decide, Experience and Post-Experience with built-in brand anchors—capturing attention-poor audiences becomes less complicated.

2. Stimulus Devaluation

It’s getting harder and harder to compete for people’s attention. So much so it’s become a point of currency. A scarily large percentage of men (67%) would rather be electrocuted than sit in quiet solitude for fifteen minutes, compared to 25% of women. We crave stimulation. 

Some more stats:According to a survey conducted by discount site Slickdeals, 74% of respondents experienced buyer’s remorse following an online purchase. Alternative research by Nielsen found that 59% of consumers regret not waiting for a sale or using a coupon before making a purchase.

If you don’t put content between your customer and conversion, you create a comedown. And that’s particularly important in luxury where every single touch point matters in building a narrative. It’s story that creates a paradigm of value and if brands shatter that paradigm, they halve the value of the actual product or experience.

To lower those remorse numbers, feelings post-purchase need to feel worthy of the investment made. We need healthy friction in the buying process – that is, some sense of calibrated effort on behalf of the buyer and brand designed to combat cognitive dissonance and anticipated regret, particularly in a market that is more discerning than ever.

Patagonia have never been afraid of leading with their values – an anomaly in the world of fashion. As one of the earliest B corps, the cult brand’s ecological principles are hardline and often placed directly in front of prospective customers.

Patagonia Homepage

Rather than leading with product, their site heroes repair services with the imperative: “IF IT’S BROKE FIX IT”, a bold message designed to slow down the frenzied clicking of digitally native users. And while healthy friction can of course be built in subtler ways, Patagonia aren’t ones to shy away from standing out. 

For luxury marques with higher price points, that friction is even more vital. For Amazon, mindless purchases and low gratification are commonplace – expected even. And while that may be meeting Bezos’ objectives, brands in the luxury space need to gain emotional investment from their clientele if they have any hope of alleviating buyer’s remorse. It’s why personalisation is a priority for many; it fosters that connection and investment on an individual level. 

It’s no secret that as individuals we’re all loaded with our own bias. Neither is the knowledge that expectations impact experience. If we go looking for something, we’ll often find it at the expense of everything else. 

That tunnel vision is the superpower of brand storytelling. One woefully underused between booking and arrival – a stretch where brands need to be guiding people, watching what they look for, finding their value references and identifying points to heighten experience rather than snatching their hands away once the customer is post-purchase. 

Moving forward into this new age doesn’t mean moving faster. Some of the best examples of brands who work really well in the luxury space force their audiences to slow down. And, in doing so, create a more embodied and connected experience.

3. Social Proof

More forgotten than untapped, the potential of the post-experience phase doesn’t register for more brands. So narrowly focused on converting new customers, they forget the best market is their existing one. People who have already aligned with and advocated for their marque. 

Brands are in the business of identity, defining people through stories and giving meaning through that experience, intentionally or otherwise. Thanks to noise and market overcrowding, timeless brands need to push themselves harder – to do the unexpected. That’s where the most meaningful experience manifests, where audiences will see the brand as a curator for self-actualisation. 

Consider how to help your customers define who they are or what to be, and then craft the journey to get them there. How do you help them become “one of those people”? And not one of those people who puts a green ‘PASSED’ sticker on their car, cool people. The kind of people they aspire to be. 

More often than not, the shift comes from our nature as inherently social beings. 

Coined by American psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini, social proof is a behavioural theory which essentially proves the adage: “safety in numbers”. That humans will often do what they observe others doing. 

In his most well-known study, Cialdini collaborated with an American hotel business to determine which in-room messaging promoted towel reuse the most. A message reading “please reuse your towel because it’s good for the environment” was displayed in the control set of rooms. 35% of the visitors in this situation reused their towels. Certainly not enough to save a planet on fire. 

Cialdini then switched up the messaging, omitting the environmental rationale in favour of one that focused on social proof, emphasising the norms of behaviour – “please reuse your towel because most people do so.” Reuse rates jumped to 44%. Still not enough, but a significant increase considering the only difference is a four-word clause.

This kind of identity creation is really important in the context of things like sustainability. Despite caring about ESG values, plenty of people don’t make sustainable choices in their day-to-day. 

By linking key decisions to a trigger, brands can bridge the intention-to-action gap. Combining motivation with a cue gets people to act. Especially in digital if the cue is a distinctive design element. 

4. Framing

When brands show work has happened, people will believe their outcome more. In fact, undermining the depth of the process will lower perceived value of the experience. To that end, dialling up the human element through high-touch service is always going to be beneficial. 

Adding effort creates a sense of ownership and value. 

Iconic baking brand Betty Crocker was a failure when it launched in 1960 because ‘bakers’ who bought the cake mixes didn’t have to do anything post-purchase. No friction, no ritual, no vested interest, failure.

So the brand incorporated cracking an egg into the mixture and suddenly the product took off, still stocked on supermarket shelves today. 

Creating quality perceptions starts with the right associations too. While framing value with price, colour and tone of voice is common and effective, research shows that wine has a 15% higher flavour profile when people can hear the cork popping, as opposed to a screwtop/no sound association. Proving the heuristic that quality is linked to effort. 

In the haste of selling, we forget how important it is to slow down and make sure you’re communicating value signals at every touch point. 

Without a level of processing, there is no sense of ownership. Take those famous Economist ads, glaring quotes that take a second to click – for the right readers.

The Economist Advert

People who read The Economist feel good about themselves when they read that. And people who don’t read The Economist want to start. 

Choice architecture can also help frame value. Too much choice can frequently mean buyers purchase less. They’re overwhelmed by options. 

Brands assume more options means conversion is more likely. In reality, choice paralyses a customer. 

Psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper set out to prove this in their 2000 study on jams. On a normal day at a local grocery store, patrons would find a selection of 24 jars of jam on a display table. On a different day, at the same store, patrons were displayed with only 6 jars. You can guess which day saw more sales. 

Iyengar and Lepper discovered that although consumers were more interested in the larger display table, they were around 10 times less likely to buy a jar of jam than they were in the case of the smaller display.

Choice overload is a conversion killer. Too many options make it difficult for people to imagine themselves with the product. To design for humans, perceptual fluency must be part of the strategy. Make it easy for people to see themselves with the perfect product (yours) at the perfect moment. Then create a ritual around that product that encourages vested interest.

Don’t forget how basic people are, how biased we can be, and how easily value perceptions are manipulated.

Human-Centred Design Key Takeaways for Timeless Brands

  • Story starts long before conversion, continuing along the experience and beyond. 
  • Growing markets mean redder oceans. More noise, more cliché. 
  • A brand’s tonal qualities are vital – Hyper-sensitive customers expect confident narratives and will push back if language and message aren’t congruent. 
  • Basic behavioural design principles can create a reinforced paradigm of value, cutting through to the nuances that matter.
  • People are finding, expressing and experimenting with their identity through purchasing decisions. Interaction with brands is as much about self-definition and introspection as it is about objective joy. 
  • Brands are the sum of every interaction they have with a person. 

Humans are fundamentally simple. Yet brands continue to overcomplicate. The number of channels may have exploded and content is inescapable, but the basics of behaviour remain unchanged. Just as what brands need to deliver stays the same. Story. Ritual. Value. That’s how people connect to things, that’s how they remember. 

To carve out that place in the mind for our clients, we frame our work with four questions: Are we authoring the right story? Evoking the correct emotion? Encouraging desired behaviours? Are we asking the right questions?