How beautiful design can break the cycle of over consumption

Tiziana
8 min readMay 31, 2024
Purely decorative illustration
Illustration from Freepik

Our world is over-designed. This is good news for the multitude of designers in the field and for the ever increasing number of students being seduced into the profession. It may also be good news for consumers since the most mundane products are now beautifully and thoughtfully (over)designed. In fact, there is such a glut of gorgeous products that people have difficulty analyzing the available alternatives.

How can companies stand out in this cluttered marketplace? Seductive design appears to be the perfect answer: By using psychology, they attract, entice, and engage customers, persuading them to perform a specific behavior, which often means purchasing a product, regardless of their actual needs.

Aura Breathalyzer — Red Dot Award 2014. Perfect example of an over-designed product that creates desire…
…and uses (literally) seductive design — from Aura LifeStyle Video

In the past 10 years, an ever-growing number of companies and organizations have realized that while technology moves extremely fast, the human brain does not change as quickly. Since people reason in a way that is remarkably similar to how our ancient ancestors did, the expansion of digital technology has brought about the explosion of behavioral design and along with it many ethical questions and conundrums. The late-stage capitalism prevalent in the United States (and China) has created an onslaught of deceptive situations, often with the complicity of psychology, that push an endless stream of products to satisfy artificial needs that companies themselves have implanted into our brains.

Why Does It Work?
How does seductive design make a product irresistible? It involves understanding the human brain and its many biases and exploiting them. Humans have limited cognitive resources and, therefore, resort to helpful heuristics and shortcuts to allocate those resources efficiently. For example, people have an aversion to loss. Social media has leveraged our fear of missing out to increase engagement to the point of addiction. As social animals, want to be accepted by our peers and follow what others do. This is why reviews and implied social norms are so powerful and persuasive and why so many companies post fake reviews to skew the odds in their favor.

Refined aesthetics and minimal design trigger another bias, the cognitive fluency effect: a product that looks simple and beautiful will be seen as simple. Furthermore, if our first impression suggests that an object is easy to use, we will work harder to overcome obstacles because who wants to be wrong?

It is not just about perception, though. In Seductive Interaction Design, Stephen Anderson explains that beautiful products work better because they put us in a better mood, and therefore, our brain releases chemicals, such as dopamine, that will allow us to think more creatively and overcome friction. This is not a new discovery. Don Norman describes
this effect in his book Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. However, it has been pushed to the extreme in contemporary product design, often unfairly influencing customers’ preferences.

The Nest Thermostat is a notable example. Compared to a regular thermostat, it looks incredibly simple and beautiful. But is it really? Not
quite. While the manual commands are elementary, it also includes many smart features that require quite a bit of effort to figure out. In fact, many people just ignore them and use the most basic ones, the same features that can be found in a standard and much cheaper device. Regardless, it is still one of the most popular and admired thermostats on the market today.

Nest Thermostat: so deceptively simple

The Impact of Behavioral Design

Behavioral design aims to cause a beneficial change in customers’ behaviors. Many scientists, from late psychologist Daniel Kahneman to behavioral scientist Robert Cialdini, have perfected the art of persuasion and behavioral change. Behavioral science has been incorporated into many areas of life from public policies to apps and industrial design.

Sometimes the tools carry unethical consequences. Various practitioners and experts have explained how to make your customer hooked (Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal), how to create irresistible experiences (Seductive Interaction Design by Stephen Anderson), and how to gamify your product so customers cannot get enough of it. A river of ink has been spilled discussing how social media has been designed to maximize engagement regardless of harm.

However, the whole consumer product cycle can be quite psychologically toxic.

The Dark Side of Seduction

Impulse buying is not a new phenomenon, but it is super-powered by psychological manipulation. Did you ever feel rushed when booking a hotel room or an airfare when there are only two left at this price and someone already has one in their cart? And what about this incredible sale that only lasts until the timer runs out?

booking.com website, showing examples of deceptive (dark) patterns
booking.com is not the only site to use these techniques…but it is notorious for them

Persuasion tools, nudges, and exploiting biases can easily slip into unethical territory. Products do not last due to planned obsolescence, and not-so-durable products or outdated features are replaced by the latest, shinier must-haves. The immense choice and psychological pressure make us not only consume too much but less happy as well. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz talked about how the over-abundance of options paralyzes us, as William Hicks mathematically demonstrated in 1952. Schwartz, however, went further: Not only is it harder for people to make a viable choice among too many options, but if we do manage to, we are less happy with what we chose, creating a vicious cycle of over-consumption.

For example, do kids really need a brand-new smartphone every year or two? Even more importantly, does Apple need to release a new, almost identical model every 12 months?

apple webpage advertising the iPhone 15. The text reads: New Camera. New design. Newphoria
New design? It looks exactly the same as the iPhone 14, or 13

Do we need a smart accessory for every single task in our daily life?

Will seductive design, then, destroy us and the planet in an ever-expanding vortex of implanted desire and over-consumption? It could very well be true, but I do not believe so. Seductive design and applied psychology may
indeed be our only way out of the destructive cycle we find ourselves in.

Making the case for Ethical Seductive Design

The advocates for and pioneers of behavioral design stressed the importance of using these tools only to improve well-being and facilitate better personal, social, and environmental choices. They never condoned manipulation and deception.

What if we create accessible products that are so beautiful that they would appeal to everyone? OXO already did this three decades ago, but few companies have followed its lead. It has been almost 40 years since Patricia Moore, FIDSA, advocated for designing gorgeous and useful objects for the aging generation with little to show for it.

A smiling older person standing next to Labrador Retriever, an AI powered robot
A product like Labrador Retriever — an AI powered mobile robot — would be a success if sold directly to customers at a reasonable price.

Isolation, loneliness, and depression affect too many seniors.
Yet many are hesitant to ask for help, or do not know how to. With a
modern look that is miles away from a medical device, the Elli Q AI powered assistant provides companionship, engages users with lively conversations, and helps them connect with family and friends. Best of all, its intuitive design requires no tech skills at all. Forget Alexa or Siri: this is what I want in a smart assistant.

an older woman, smiling while looking at their Elly-Q device
Elli Q , can be a great companion for all…who can afford it.

What if desirable products could help us solve our environmental crisis? LifeStraw demonstrated that it can be done. This B-Cert company produces filtration products that work great and look better. Its BPA-free water bottle
removes virtually all parasites, bacteria, and microplastic using a filter lasting up to 1,000 gallons. Furthermore, the company has a give-back program that ensures a child in need receives safe water for a year for each product sold. If we can make Stanley Cups a status symbol, why not the LifeStraw Bottle, which costs the same?

Close up of The LifeStraw bottle, calling out its features.
image courtesy of https://lifestraw.com/

What about making health and sustainability a must-have in the design process? Companies like Grove Collaborative have made their environmental stance a selling point and created highly desirable (and effective) products that are less damaging to the environment while being packaged in gorgeous containers.

Homepage of the website for Grove Collaborative
https://www.grove.co/

And how many more people started composting because of the Chef’n EcoCrock Counter Compost Bin? I am one of them.

the counter-top compost bin in use. Shown in white plastic with a green, removable basket
image courtesy of https://www.chefn.com

On Profitability

We can design irresistibly beautiful products that solve larger global problems. Using seductive design to encourage and facilitate optimal consumer behavior is the only way out of the never-ending cycle of over consumption. We have the technology, we have the need, we have the demand, and we have the skill. Now we need the business industry to realize the fantastic opportunity they are missing.

Being sustainable, accessible, and inclusive does not conflict with profit. On the contrary, it’s more profitable (the OXO peeler is more profitable for the whole supply chain). Consumers are asking more from companies. Beautiful design is now a given, but the issue of sustainability and social impact is getting more important every day. Being an ethical company is now a badge of honor: Eventually it will become a necessity as consumers come to see it as a requirement. When it affects the bottom line, companies will have to shift priorities if they want to survive and thrive.

This article appeared, slightly modified, in the Spring 2024 issue of IDSA INNOVATION Magazine. Read the full issue today: https://lnkd.in/dmQCHR9V

References

• Anderson, S. P. (2011). Seductive interaction design: Creating Playful, Fun, and Effective User Experiences. Pearson Education.
• Cialdini, R. B., PhD. (2021). Influence, new and expanded: The Psychology of Persuasion. HarperCollins.
• Eyal, N. (2014). Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Penguin.
• Hick, W.E. (1952). “On the rate of gain of information” (PDF). Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 4 (1): 11–26.
• Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Penguin UK.
• Moore, P., & Conn, C. P. (1985). Disguised! W Publishing Group.
• Norman, D. A. (2004). Emotional design: why we love (or hate) everyday things. Choice Reviews Online, 41(11), 41–6846. https://doi.org/10.5860/choice.41–6846
• Sunstein, C. R. (2016b). The ethics of influence: Government in the Age of Behavioral Science. Cambridge University Press.
• Schwartz, B. (2009). The paradox of choice: Why More Is Less, Revised Edition. Harper Collins.
• Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2012b). Nudge: The Final Edition. Penguin UK.

Websites
• LifeStraw by Vestergaard https://lifestraw.com/
• Labrador Retriever (https://labradorsystems.com/contact/)
• LifeStraw https://lifestraw.com/
• ElliQ https://elliq.com
• Aura Breathalizer — https://www.desirethis.com/1771/aura-breathalyzer
• Aura Lifestyle Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WJWJCIUXI4&t=23s

Images:
https://labradorsystems.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Man-with-Cane_final-1-min-scaled.jpg
https://lifestraw.com/cdn/shop/files/testimonal-bg-updated-2_2100x.jpg?v=1697745335
https://elliq.com/cdn/shop/files/Mask_group.png?v=1704727564
https://www.red-dot.org/project/aura-breathalyzer-31896/

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Tiziana

UX Psychologist and ethical interactive designer. Higher ROI without manipulation.