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The Two Ps of Consumer Behavior: (Seeking) Pleasure and (Skirting) Pain Too many startups develop products and services for ‘assumed' wants and perceived needs. What about designing solutions for deeper desires?


There are no two forces more powerful than pleasure and pain when it comes to driving human behavior.

IDEO might understand this maxim best. For the past two decades, the global innovation and design firm has championed a human-centered approach to problem-solving: placing people first. They work assiduously to identify, better understand and create solutions that address latent needs and unmet desires.

Evidence of success is omnipresent. Apple, HBO, Target, The Gates Foundation — all of which have been IDEO clients. IDEO's brand of design thinking has even infiltrated academia — Stanford's Hasso Plattner Design School is becoming a popular route for would-be entrepreneurs and, in some cases, an alternative to earning an MBA.

As a former IDEOr, I can attest to the efficacy and elasticity of human-centered design when it comes to brand strategy, hospitality, education, consumer electronics, health and wellness, even public policy. But as the founder and CEO of an e-commerce company, I'm now even more familiar with the challenges presented by crowded, competitive arenas, both on and offline.

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I know that crafting solutions that cater to wants and needs (real or perceived) is not sufficient. True differentiation requires a more demanding set of criteria. Even if designing for "aspirations' is a reasonable approach, creating offerings aimed at alleviating pain can prove transformative — for people and for companies.

Pain represents an enormous business opportunity. Putting aside chemical compounds that ease or eliminate somatic and neuropathic distress — although, projected sales of prescription-pain meds could top $60 billion in 2012 — daily life is full of aggravations: loss, loneliness, confusion, frustration. Every waking day, there are a constellation of challenges (real human problems) that startups are uniquely positioned to solve.

Take Uber for instance, the on-demand private-car service, a.k.a. "everyone's private driver." They didn't set their sights, as one might assume, squarely on in-city transport. They addressed a single, shared, frustration: The hassle of trying to hail a taxi in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Paris — where finding a cab is comparable to sniffing out a gluten-free, Kosher creperie in the Congo.

Uber solved this quandary through design — through human-centered approaches to design, by reducing if not eliminating pain points. The app is intuitive, sexy and seamless. That it is. But Uber's success has less to do with razor-sharp branding than their core proposition: pain alleviation.

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Pleasure is another path to success. There's scarcely a better example than MR PORTER, the web's premier merchant of luxury goods for men. Their merchandising is unrivalled. Their content strategy (video, online editorial, even print) is the object of admiration not just in commerce, but among publishers of lifestyle media. Yet, the key ingredientwhen it comes to delivering pleasure? Their packaging.

Shoppers receive a box inside of a box, inside of yet another box, replete with tissue, ribbon, speedy delivery and a personalized note. It's a thoughtful, scripted journey, from discovery online to delivery on your doorstep, capped by an out-of-box experience akin to Christmas morning — or the first and final nights of Chanukah.

Ordinary online shopping experiences reach their apex at the moment of product identification (the one you want), and therewith, they tank. MR PORTER bridges the emotional chasm between the moment of purchase and delivery by front-loading pleasure (online), and over-delivering joy on the tail end (the physical encounter).

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MR PORTER may not sell "pleasure products' (yet), but they do deliver pleasure, through the prism of luxury, on a daily basis. Uber doesn't ignore pleasure, but they do (even if unwittingly) take a more pain-centric approach to problem solving.

In both cases, better data doesn't drive the engagement needle. Better experiences do. And these experiences are crafted to appeal to our basest, most primordial instincts: the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain.

Michael Phillips Moskowitz

Founder the Bureau of Trade

Michael Phillips Moskowitz is the founder the Bureau of Trade, a luxury shopping portal that blends retail opportunities with style and cultural criticism. He formerly served as a Middle East foreign policy research analyst at think tanks in the United States and overseas. Over the last several years, he co-founded the award-winning menswear label, Gytha Mander, and TODO Monthly magazine; and spent several years at IDEO, a design and innovation firm in Palo Alto.

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