As a visual person, I often judge products based on the way they look and the way they make me feel — sometimes even at the expense of features. This is not to say I would commit to using something that is frustrating or difficult, but, all things being equal, I would certainly choose a product that feels more desirable to me.
Desirability is highly subjective, and traditional user studies have found difficulty in collecting data that accurately accounts for this. In interviews and usability testing, users are often asked questions that are more important to the researchers than to them personally and are also hesitant to provide negative feedback. It can be difficult for users to come up with the right words to describe something, so having a set that they can pull from makes the process quicker and more efficient.
Microsoft developed a technique to measure desirability that would allow participants to select from a range of words, both positive and negative, to describe their feelings toward a product. The method allows researchers to control which things they are interested in getting feedback on, and can then ask specific questions related to these answers. It also helps to bypass the noise that can often come from asking about aesthetics or trying gain this kind of feedback in another way. The participants even seem to enjoy the process.
Though this method collects primarily qualitative data, it is also possible to obtain metrics by using a simple word cloud. Once organized, the selected words paint a quite useful picture of users’ feelings toward the product.
One case study I found showed compiled word clouds next to the designs they were testing. They tested three versions of the same site, and it is interesting to see how varied the emotional responses were from design to design. They were also able to determine percentages of positive and negative feedback as additional data to help them move forward. I’d be curious to know what aspects of the site made people respond the way they did — was it the color schemes? The stock photography? The heading copy or layout?
As usability increases across the board (as I hope it will continue to do) the importance of desirability will also grow. Obviously it is so important to have something that functions and does what it is supposed to do, but aesthetics and visceral reactions are definitely a huge part of the picture. Having some way to measure this to help guide design decisions is important for design teams, business owners, and users alike.
Benedek, J. and Miner, T. "Measuring Desirability: New Methods for Evaluating Desirability in a Usability Lab Setting." (Word document) Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2002.