What is the importance of Desirability in UX?

Summary: Getting to the bottom of your desirability criteria is more important than understanding usability. Since usability metrics are based on successful task completion, they should come after clearly representing user tasks, needs, and goals.  You should first define desirability criteria, then consider and test usability. Understanding desirability and what users truly want and need can fundamentally differentiate a design, product, or value proposition. It impacts business results like conversion, engagement, and user adoption.  

What is desirability?

Desirability represents the other side of the “two sides of UX”. While Usability gets more attention in User Research, it is a reactive approach. It is usually investigated after a product is complete. Usability is about fixing things that are broken through evaluation and testing. Usability and other forms of conversion optimization, like A/B testing, are essential. However, if you optimize with assumptions of user tasks, you may miss this more strategic understanding of UX– desirability. Desirability defines the problem to be solved from a customer’s perspective/ journey.

Good UX means ease of use for the user. More importantly, it also means they want or desire to use it in the first place. 

Desirability asks first: ‘What are the user’s actual tasks?’ Once that has been clearly defined and designed with user observations and interviews, then we can worry about testing and improving the usability of the user interface (UI). – Frank Spillers, CEO, Experience Dynamics

Important Clarification: The UX community often uses the term “Desirability” to test branding and Visual Appeal. Microsoft’s Desirability Toolkit offers a way to do this. However, this is not how we use the term at Experience Dynamics. Like many UX professionals, we choose to break with this definition of desirability because the term itself is better used to describe the problem of meeting user needs. We have found that simply describing user needs as “tasks, requirements, context, or jobs” resonates less with stakeholders (they assume that usability covers that). Describing ‘Desirability criteria’ reminds us that user desires (wants and needs) have an emotional component at a different UX level. Usability focuses on logical outcomes: eg. Does it work as expected? Desirability introduces questions such as: eg What are user expectations?

Clearly, desirability is more important than usability when designing UX or building, optimizing, and redesigning products or services. 

When Desirability Matters in UX

Ideally, you should answer desirability-related questions up-front in a design or re-design process. For example, bringing field research to your first-day Design Sprint (a method for designing and user testing in one week) can improve its weakness in only emphasizing user testing. 

See: Use this Vital ROI Hack to Improve Your Design Sprints

Back-tracking to figure out desirability can be done with finished products or services. However, due to the strategic insight gained from surfacing desirability criteria, you may be left with an extensive Agile Backlog, a clearer MVP, or a completely new way of laying out or positioning your core UI, value proposition or UX strategy. These are good problems to have, but be aware they are strategic “fixes” not quick and easy “features” that can be bolted on. 

How to gather Desirability criteria

Desirability is gathered by “Day in the Life” interviews and observations. This can involve techniques from Ethnography (“culture study”), Contextual Inquiry (a technique that focuses on context of use), or Task Analysis (a 40-year-old technique for mapping user tasks to features). 

Desirability is at the heart of Personas and Customer Journey Maps, UX, and Service Design tools used in teams today. Persona quality can be severely compromised without desirability criteria. Likewise, running Journey Maps that are not based on user research and desirability criteria is dangerous to design decision-making.  

Desirability studies often involve 15-30 users (5-10 per segment), to identify patterns, pain points, undiscovered needs, workflow, and task flow as well as goals, tasks, and sub-tasks. At Experience Dynamics, we also capture emotional and social requirements. For example, in a doctor’s office study we found stacks of iPads unused. The iPads are not multi-user, and doctors did not want others, eg Office Staff, to access confidential patient data. A different study involving billing administrators in healthcare departments found stacks of paper print-outs, highly desired to “track and work a job queue”, without proper functionality for tracking and managing billing issues. Printed paper was more highly desired than digitized reports, making the product team’s honorable “save a tree” goal of digitized invoices an invalidated assumption or one lacking the necessary steering based on the user’s context of use and desirability criteria. 


Smaller firms, non-profits, Independent Software Vendors and even medium to large (Enterprise) organizations tend to scale UX excellence unevenly and are most vulnerable to miss this distinction. Emerging Markets are also slow to understand this important UX process. For example, in India, managers see UX as analytical, possibly allowing user testing and nothing more. In China, managers value quick ROI-yielding features and functionality over exploring user expectations and needs. These same problems occur in the US in organizations big and small, as UX is seen as a creative or analytical art and not cognitive, behavioral, or anthropological science. Simply, product managers tend to follow the culture of Quant-itative decision-making (“Show me some numbers!”) over insight-driven intuitive decision-making or Qual-itative evidence (“Why are customers finding this task awkward?”). 


Understanding desirability and what users truly want and need can differentiate a design, product, or value proposition fundamentally with very real impacts on business results like conversion, engagement, and user adoption. See this case study of a UX redesign of a bank call center.  Through addressing desirability, success rates were improved from 55% to 92% after the redesign.   

Want more? Join Frank Spillers’ Inner Circle, and Grow, Learn and Expand your UX knowledge: www.uxinnercircle.com

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