Three types of wanting

If you’re building a product, it better be something that people want. That much is obvious. But it turns out that this concept of “wanting” is enormously complex — and there are lots of ways to misunderstand it. Here are three types of “want”.

Type 1 wanting: the passions

The first kind of desire is the kind that’s more of the body than the mind. It’s more System 1 than System 2. It’s a type of desire that’s not based in instrumental reasoning — “I want X because it’ll help me get Y.” This type of wanting is direct and visceral. You feel it when you’re hungry and you see and smell delicious food. You feel it when you’re engrossed in a novel and you can’t stop reading. You feel it when you’re madly in love in a new relationship.

For those who make products, this is a type of wanting to be cultivated. People aren’t born with passion for your product.

Type 2 wanting: the rational mind

The second type of desire is that of the rational mind. It’s instrumental: Bob wants to get a summer job so that he can buy a car. Bob might not have much passion about the idea of getting a job, but nonetheless he wants to do it for instrumental reasons.

When there’s dissonance between type 1 and type 2 wanting, we have a very interesting human phenomenon that philosophers call akrasia, or ‘weakness of will’. People don’t always do what they think is good for them. And sometimes they do what they think is bad for them. For example: George thinks he should stop watching TV, but it feels so good that he keeps doing it. Or: Jerry thinks that he should eat a salad, but instead he easts Kenny Rogers chicken because it feels so desirable.

Akrasia is especially relevant to product makers in health, wellness, and education. You’re building something that’s supposed to provide your user with some benefit — just the way exercise is supposed to provide benefit. But just like we often don’t exercise when we know we should, we won’t necessarily use a product just because it’s good for us. We need Type 1 wanting as well.

Type 3 wanting: the one who knows better

“You don’t want to do that.”

“I don’t think you want that.”

What do we mean when we say things like this? We’re not talking about type 1 or type 2 wanting. You know better than me what you want in those senses.

We’re talking about a third sense of wanting: what you should want. It’s what you would want if you knew more. You currently want to open door number 3, but if you knew what was behind the doors, you wouldn’t want it.

Product makers sometimes mess this up when they have a theory about the way the world should be, and they expect that all their users will want the world to be that way too. But if the user doesn’t share the theory, then they probably won’t share the picture of a better world.

Humans are best off when there’s consonance between the three types of wanting. Eg, when it comes to eating sand, I:

  • Type 1 don’t want it
  • Type 2 don’t want it
  • Type 3 (I’m pretty sure) don’t want it

And we run into trouble when there’s dissonance between the three.

The best products are those for which there’s consonance (in the positive direction) between the three types of wanting. When I bought my first pair of AirPods, here’s how it looked:

  • Type 1: Those things are sexy; I want them
  • Type 2: I think it’ll be worth it go go wireless even though they’re expensive
  • Type 3: Two years later I think that was one of the best purchases I ever made.