Do you have Uber or Lyft on your phone? Have you ever been on a dating app, swiping fruitlessly for hours? Is that a Fitbit on your wrist? Nowadays, we’ve developed a slew of products and services that seem to solve all our problems.
If we take a closer look, we can see that these apps, beauty products, and techy gadgets share one commonality — they were designed in response to universal human fears.
Dr. Karl Albrecht has identified five basic fears in all human beings. For better or for worse, these fears are an inexhaustible source of inspiration for new solutions and products. Let’s explore them further.
Fear of death
This is the “mother of all fears”, the latent fear of misery, sickness, emotional or physical risk. It’s the looming possibility of non-survival. Here are just a few services or products that stem from our collective fear of death:
- Syringes designed with increasingly smaller needles to minimize any sensation of pain.
- And for those who truly can’t face the end of existence, there’s Capsula Mundi. It’s a fully biodegradable casket that is buried with a tree seed, so as the body disintegrates it provides nutrients to the sapling growing above it. While the positive environmental impact can’t be denied, their tagline speaks for itself: “Capsula Mundi. Life never stops.”
Fear of losing autonomy
The fear of physically not being able to move, of feeling trapped, is called claustrophobia. Losing control of oneself or one’s environment is also an aspect of this fear. These products assuage our inner control freaks:
- Ride-sharing apps provide on-demand mobility to get you where you need, whenever you need it. Another person may be driving, but you have the last word that determines your ride experience.
- Wearables like Fitbits and Apple watches allow us to measure and record our own bodies with almost neurotic granularity. Giving people control over their nutrition and fitness is undeniably important, but the rise in wearables also enables obsessive self-quantification. A designer at Facebook famously tracked every aspect of his life for nine years. Using that data, he produced infographics about every minute detail of his life — physiological, emotional, social.
Fear of separation
The fear of rejection, of being unwanted and unappreciated — the human fear of separation is a powerful stimulus. It’s also known as fear of abandonment, rejection, or contempt.
- Many computer games provide this function, but VRChat is a stand-out amongst online multiplayer games. Using a customizable 3D avatar, players can chat with others in virtual worlds. The game minimizes the possibility of personal rejection while providing some form of companionship and social interaction.
- Dating apps can connect you with a seemingly unlimited number of people, but it’s also another way of avoiding rejection or contempt.
Fear of mutilation
The profound fear that anyone can harm us in a physical way. Even if it sounds absurd, we all have that fear of losing a part of us.
- Life insurance gives us peace of mind that when we die our loved ones will be taken care of. This is actually a combo of fears — the fears of death and of mutilation.
- Smooth elevators that minimize the sensation of falling, even though we know the chance of death or mutilation by elevator is tiny.
Fear of harm to the ego
Known as death of the ego — the feeling of humiliation, disapproval, or rejection. Just to name a few:
- The beauty industry is really low-hanging fruit when we’re looking for examples of designing for fear. Many products, whether they claim to give smoother skin or prevention against wrinkles, target our fear of rejection and humiliation.
- Gyms and fitness classes can arguably appeal to our fear of disapproval or rejection too. While physical fitness is a healthy pursuit, sometimes exercise seems marketed towards our ego instead of our cardiovascular health.
So, what does all this mean… Should we design to exploit people’s fears?
Of course not. It’s about exploring and responding to what drives us as human beings: our aspirations, hopes, anxieties, and yes, fears. Innovation does not necessarily stem from the latest technology, but rather from a place of understanding and respecting people’s needs. This will help us deliver thoughtful, meaningful design solutions.