How design expectation can become product experience

Design is a bit like magic. It can be hard to see how it works, but is actually powered by a mixture of skill and science.

As a design researcher, it’s our job to evaluate the effect that designs have on their target audience, and unpick how they are (or aren’t) working.

The challenge we face is to dig beneath the rational. Consumers will often explain how they ‘don’t buy something based on the packaging’. Well of course not – it would be completely irrational to buy one product over another because of the way it’s been packaged, right?

However, the industry has long known that this is far from the truth; in fact, as humans we often act irrationally, and indeed packaging can have a huge impact on purchase decisions.

This notion is supported by the recent book, Decoded by Phil Barden, which looks in detail at the science behind decision-making (and more besides), and asks, ‘what does that mean for marketing?’

Photo: Decoded by Phil Barden, the cover
Photo: Decoded by Phil Barden, the cover

Its breakdown of the recent studies in psychology and neurology go a long way towards demystifying design and uncovering the factors at work that make some designs successful and others failures; it’s a fascinating read.

One of the smaller points hidden in Barden’s book strikes me as having some interesting ramifications for the world of design – that of expectations of the product being directly linked to actual experience.

Barden describes a study into headache pills in which some participants were given real headache pills and others placebos. The group given placebo pills received these in original aspirin packaging, so believed they were real. What happened next was extraordinary. They not only reported pain relief but actually experienced it, based on observed neural activity patterns.

The book contains other examples of this link between expectation and experience including: respondents who experienced an increased heart rate because they believed they were drinking regular coffee, when in fact it was decaffeinated; and how a reduced cost had a correspondingly reductive effect on the physiological powers of an energy drink.

So if we think about expectation affecting experience, it follows that packs’ graphic design – which, after all, is largely about building up expectations – can also tangibly affect experience.

So perhaps a chocolate bar will taste more indulgent if its packaging builds up that expectation, or a soft drink will actually be more refreshing if its pack design suggests it as such.

We’ve long known about the power of design to enhance experience in the fields of product design and ergonomics, but pack graphic design has traditionally been thought of as a sales tool first and foremost.

This perhaps yields a new way of thinking about it: more than the ‘silent salesman’, design’s power to heighten expectations means that it can also enhance the actual product experience, without a need for reformulating the product itself. Now thats magical.

About the Author

Stuart Chapman The Big Picture_new photo

Stuart Chapman is Associate Director at The Big Picture, a design research company. From a background in architecture, Stuart turned his attention from design to design strategy at The Big Picture. His work there has influenced the direction of many of the world’s most recognisable and prestigious brands