Designing Perceptions Instead of Solutions

{ 🤔 } – Why a Solution to a Problem in the 21st Century May Not Be the Answer

Henry Ford’s reaction to a consultant who questioned why he paid $50,000 a year to someone who spent most of his time with his feet on his desk. “Because a few years ago that man came up with something that saved me $2,000,000,” he replied. “And when he had that idea his feet were exactly where they are now.”

What if we switched the food that is served in a restaurant with a Michelin star with one that does not have one, and vice-versa? Chances are you wouldn’t notice a difference. What if I told you that travelling faster by train from point A to point B and saving one hour of time difference would cost you 6 billion in renovations and constructions, but if you just installed a high-speed internet nobody would give a cent about that 1-hour difference?

Engineers, medical people, scientific people, have an obsession with solving the problems of reality, when actually … once you reach a basic level of wealth in society, most problems are actually problems of perception

― Rory Sutherland

As a designer, I tended to fall into the pitfall that we must always be looking to design solutions. We have to improve our product, make it faster, better looking, better performing and overall better than our competitors. But if all of us are doing these things, why there are so many average products? And after giving it a proper thought I realised that it has less to do with what you design or build, whether it is an excellent, or the best, invention of all times, and more with, how people perceive it. Perception is one of the key components of a product’s success.

Let’s Start with A Story

Ever since, in the UK they banned smoking in public places, I’ve never enjoyed a drinks party ever again. And the reason, I only worked out just the other day, is when you go to a drinks party and you stand up and you hold a glass of red wine and you talk endlessly to people, you don’t actually want to spend all the time talking. It’s really, really tiring. Sometimes you just want to stand there silently, alone with your thoughts. Sometimes you just want to stand in the corner and stare out of the window. Now the problem is, when you can’t smoke, if you stand and stare out of the window on your own, you’re an antisocial, friendless idiot. If you stand and stare out of the window on your own with a cigarette, you’re a fucking philosopher

― Rory Sutherland

We Too Often Forget That:

  • Things are not what they seem to be;
  • They are what we think they are;
  • Things are what we compare them to;
  • Psychological value is often the best kind;

So this leads me to the thought that when we redesign a product or design a new one, we also have to take into account what factors will influence how our end users see our product. However, there is a fine line. Because sometimes a change is a must. For example, a railroad is so old it hasn’t been changed in 50 years, so in this case, a real change is needed, and a shift of perception won’t do anything.

What I am talking about are those incremental changes we make on a daily basis to our products. And one day we look at all the progress we’ve made, but people, somehow, still don’t use our product as intended, or we don’t get the love that we deserved.

And this has to do everything with how people see our product or service. Our brains tend to distort the reality we see and create its own one.

People think of things only the way they want to and not what they seem to be.

For example, Charlie Munger, co-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, in his book Poor Charlie’s Almanack (a must-read) has an interesting story about this.

Psychological Denial

One of Charlie Munger’s friends, had an athlete/student son who flew off a carrier in the north Atlantic, which crashed. Their son died, but his mother, who was a very sane woman, never wanted to believe that he was dead. And, of course, if you turn on the television, you’ll find the mothers of the most apparent criminals will all think that their sons are innocent. That’s pure psychological denial. The reality is too painful to bear, so you distort it until it’s bearable. We all do that to some extent, and it’s a collective psychological misjudgment that causes terrible problems.

This is not a real answer to our question, but it is a glimpse of how our brains work and change the way we see things. So this idea leads me to the thought that we mostly buy perceptions rather than solutions. The same thing I mentioned in one of my previous articles 7 Stages of User’s Action in Design.

People don’t buy a quarter inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.

Why Google’s Search Engine is The Best. Or Is It?

There are millions of examples from different industries, countries and cultures, but I will limit myself to the most known to the mass market. Let’s take as an example Google. Why do we think it is better than Yahoo or Bing? Technically speaking, we can find something here and there, but in the end, we will realise that they are not worse than Google and in some moments even way better. But somehow we still keep using Google and say that it is better and faster. Why?

We tend to believe that something is better if it does only one thing but good than something that does two or three things at once that are great and believe it’s bad.

The problem here is not in the code, search results or the “clean user interface” but more on how people perceive Google’s search engine. And the guys from Google understood that people see things from another perspective if you present the details differently.

Meanwhile, Google gives you only a search bar, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex and other search engines are trying to be portals. They want to show you the weather, news, suggestions and other trending materials. Meanwhile, what people get wrong about Google’s simplicity is not that they have a great design, but it’s an illusion they create through their simplicity. Google is a portal too, they show you the weather and news also. However, they don’t show it first. Why? Perception. It makes you feel that it is simple, better, faster because there is no clutter around. Meanwhile, Google’s search engine is the same as Yahoo or Bing, but in a different package.

Would a Faster Train Be the Answer?

Eurostar, a train company, used £6 billion to reduce the travel time between Paris and London by about 45 minutes. What if, for below 1 billion you could put a high-speed wi-fi on those trains, which would not reduce the duration, but would have improved the enjoyment you receive from your journey?

For less than 10% of that money, you can hire the most attractive male and female models in the world to work for your train company so they can hand in a drink to every passenger. So, in this case, you would still have 5 billion left and people will not only want that train to travel slower but will ask to remain for a while after it arrives at destination.

Perception Is Key

A £30 watch will answer your timekeeping needs perfectly — anything else is simply jewellery for men, and mostly of quite spectacular hideousness― Rory Sutherland, The Wiki Man

Ask people about their mobile phones, their Internet, their smart TV’s or any other modern goods which would have seemed miraculous to our grandparents. And within a minute or so you’ll be listening to complaints about the monthly bill, the slow Internet speed or that the new iPhone has 4GB of RAM and Samsung has 6GB. Technical things make a tiny difference if you can create an individual perception of speed, quality or any other feeling that will stop the complaints.

Sometimes Telling It In a Different Manner Can Change the Way You See It

Another great story by Rory Sutherland, shows how wrong we are sometimes and how perception changes everything.

Sometimes, when you land on a low cost airport, you have all the chances that the plane will not stop at the gate but a bus will come to pick you up. And it is that moment when you realise “Oh shit, it’s going to be a bus!”.

But then the pilot made an announcement which basically does not change the situation, but the way you perceive the information. He said:

‘I’ve got some bad news and some good news,’ he said. ‘The bad news is that another aircraft is blocking our arrival gate, so it’ll have to be a bus. The good news is that the bus will drop you off right next to passport control, so you won’t have far to walk with your bags.’

After years of flying, you suddenly realise that what he said was always true. The bus drops you off right where you need to be: you don’t have to lug your carry-on bags for 800 yards through a shopping centre before you can get to the exit. Yet, for most of us on the flight, this was a revelation. When we arrived promptly at passport control we were, for the first time, rather grateful for the bus. Nothing had changed objectively

— Spectator

Maybe All You Need Is a Change of Angle?

In the end, even if you create something innovative, but it gives a bad perception to your end user, you can say that you probably have failed. And maybe people don’t need your innovation or new products or services, instead, they may need a change of perspective and perception.

Sometimes treating a problem with logic will not give you the wanted results. Apply logic to any problem you have with your product and you will get a boring result that seems normal. Or as Rory Sutherland writes in his book Alchemy:

It’s true that logic is usually the best way to succeed in an argument, but if you want to succeed in life, it is not necessarily all that useful. Entrepreneurs are valuable precisely because they are not confined to doing only those things that makes sense to a committee.

If you are looking for a creative and working solution to your product problems, then logic isn’t always your best choice. And “thinking outside the box” isn’t either. A change of perception is.

People don’t always need something new. Sometimes all they need is you to make them see things differently. But a change of perception requires an understanding of why certain things don’t work. What’s the true human nature and how it works. Why people love certain products or services and dislike other. And you have to decide on how to implement that change. But you can’t do it with logic, because when you demand it, you pay a price-you destroy the “magic”.

A great way to go about uncovering such “perceptions” is to ask dumb and obvious questions. For example, when you buy an expensive train ticket you get frustrated when there are no empty seats and all you have left is to stand. And the stupid question here is — ”Why do people hate to stand?”. Seems like an obvious answer — because sitting is much better than standing. Also, because, the person paid a lot of money for that ticket, and the train company did not keep the promise — get a seat on the train. And in the end you get a bunch of mixed feelings about the train company.

But what if you sold “standing in a train” as a different narrative? What if there were hidden benefits to standing? In our case, what are the benefits of sitting? In most trains it is comfort, less stress and a place for your luggage.

But what if the person who stands gets different benefits? For example he would get a special view outside the window? Or maybe a super-fast charger, have some books to read or get a free coffee? What if that person would get a standing table where you could put your laptop and start working? Now, not having a seat doesn’t seem like a bad option. And all we did is a change of perspective-that standing is also a great option for the money if you give them the benefits too.

We don’t value things, we value their meaning. What they are is determined by the laws of physics, but what they mean is determined by the laws of psychology — Rory Sutherland

Companies that seek opportunities to do the so-called magic are always listed in the top most valuable companies. Look for yourself, anything becomes more desirable when it is in scarcity. Wine looks and sounds more expensive if it has a weird French name or poured from a heavier bottle. Paying with credit cards increases our spendings, only because we don’t see the process of losing money. This makes the act of paying less painful and stressful. When the default size of the various types of stuff we use changes, so do our actions and behaviour. For example, when supermarkets double the size of trolleys, people buy 40% more. The default portion sizes in cookery books since the 1930s have increased every decade, and so have the proportions of many people.

But we don’t believe in magic and rarely apply it in our products. Why?Because you can always get fired for doing something creative, but almost never for doing something logical.

How the Potato Became Popular

This is a story about how Frederick the Great, in the 18th century, made an almost worthless vegetable, the potato, into the most popular one to ever exist. The reason? He wanted Prussians to cultivate and eat potatoes and reduce the chances of starvation and death during bad times. Especially when there was a short supply of bread.

The problem was that people didn’t want it. They showed no interest in it. Even when Frederick tried to fine them, threaten and even imprison them they rejected it. Some people objected that it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible and they shall not eat it. Others argued that if dogs don’t eat it, why should they?

After giving it some thought, Frederick came with a plan. He made the potato a royal vegetable. And did not allow peasants to eat or cultivate it. He made a specific royal batch of potatoes which he hid in his castle’s basement and ordered his guards to protect it. But not too well. Why? Because when you declare something royal and make it scarce, there is a strong desire inside people to have and own it. Frederick knew it, that’s why he allowed it to be easily stolen. This way peasants would sneak in a steal them and start growing for themselves the so-called “royal potato”. That’s how he popularised it.

If we allow the world to be run only by logical people, we will discover only logical things — Rory Sutherland

The Change of Perception in An Envelope

In the book Alchemy, Rory Sutherland gives a great example of how the perception of a physical object can impact how much we spend. Each year, volunteers for one for a company (one of his clients) drop charity envelopes at people’s houses. The envelope asks for a small donation for a specific charity or cause.

In one of the experiments, they decided to divide the envelopes into 3 groups. One hundred thousand of them announced that the envelope has been delivered by volunteers; 100k of the envelopes were in better-quality paper; another 100k were in landscape view and another 100k were encouraged to fill a survey that will result in a 25% tax rebate.

Any logical person would never test such things. Because why would you when you send envelopes for charity? The “rational” envelope sent brought 30% fewer donations. Meanwhile, the other groups generated on average 10% more donations. And an interesting part here is that the envelope with a higher quality paper, on average, generated $100 more in donations. It’s because of the “premium” feeling you are getting and subconsciously you trust it more. Maybe it also feels more natural to put a $100 donation into an envelope that is thicker and of better quality. Gives you a sense of “hey, it’s worth the money”.

The human brain does not run on logic any more than a horse runs on petrol

— Rory Sutherland

To a logical person, there would be no point in testing such scenarios as the examples from the above. Why? Because we are afraid to ask dumb questions and stoped believing and applying “magic” to our solutions.

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Eugen Eşanu / Founder @

Designer and casual writer. Currently building