Beth Ames Altringer Eagle

An ongoing conversation about design, engineering, psychology, learning, and art.

Product & Experience Design for Desirability

Project focus: How to teach emotional design and data-driven desirability?
Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering & Applied Sciences
Harvard Graduate School of Design
Role: Course founder, professor

This is a multi-disciplinary class at Harvard University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Graduate School of Design that I created for students interested in designing products and services that are simple, irresistible, delightful, cool, covetable, viral, and, increasingly in today’s market, much more likely to be successful.

  • Read about the course in the press: Harvard Class Teaches the Design of Desirability.
  • Check out what we've been up to since 2018 on our blog here.
  • Feeling really nostalgic? Our old blog is still kicking around out there. You can explore 2013-2017 years here.
  • Looking for enrollment info? Find more information here.

    Students study real world cases of how organizations (e.g., Apple, Gucci, Swarovski) strategically design for desirability. In weekly design challenges, students use analogical transfer to apply these insights to diverse industries and target markets (e.g., health literacy campaigns, emerging technologies, declining or rapidly changing product categories, the future of luxury, and more). Weekly critique panels with experts enable students to develop their own design point of view and to finish with a diverse design portfolio. The class appeals to those interested in designing products and services that are desirable. In today’s competitive landscape, products and services that connect with human meaning, usability, and emotions are more likely to be successful. Designing for desirability begins with questions of what we mean by 'desirable' and 'for whom'. It can mean irresistible, delightful, meaningful, cool, covetable, viral, easy, and more. The class explores different meanings of desirability in design.


    Designers, engineers, developers, entrepreneurs, architects and creators of all kinds work in professions where technical functionality and economic viability are no longer enough to remain competitive. Design for desirability has long characterized the creative industries, and in this course, students learn from these principles and practice applying them to other forms of innovation – from improving health literacy campaigns to revamping declining technologies or redefining luxury goods as both aspirational and sustainable. This course uses experiential, analogical and case-based methods across a range of domains. Students study real world examples of how organizations like Apple, Uber, IDEO, Swarovski, Nike and others use different approaches to strategically design for desirability to capture and maintain the attention of their target markets. They then apply these insights to new domains. The course emphasizes fundamental concepts in design, analogical transfer, the psychology of designing for desirability, and how to use these for engineering design challenges. The course provides technical workshops to students without previous technical prototyping experience. Weekly and bi-weekly cases and experiential challenges are designed to address the applications of the course content to real world problems. Research and tight feedback loops provided by the class structure and weekly critique panels enable students to develop their own design point of view, and to finish with a diverse design portfolio.


    - You’re interested in learning from successful cases of products and services designed for desirability across a range of different industries.
    - You want to actively contribute to an unusual class and have fun while developing highly practical skills.
    - You want to take a class that finishes with a practical outcome you can use beyond the classroom (in this case a basic, diverse design portfolio).
    - You want to develop skills and knowledge in:
    - Rapid creative problem solving
    - Using 'human desirability' as a founding design principle and exploring this across diverse contexts
    - Applying analogical transfer as a design strategy
    - Prototyping ideas quickly using a variety of different tools (digital illustration, storytelling, 3D printing, improv, exhibition design, app design and more..)
    - Presenting ideas competitively (and learning from how others approach the same design brief)
    - Getting better at calibrating your own effort to output ratio
    - Working with a range of diverse partners on real projects
    - Responding to diverse feedback competitively
    - Learning more about what you like and might want to do in the future from a broad range of examples of products, services, projects and companies that excel in desirability-based design


    If you are uncomfortable with any of the following, this might not be the class for you:
    - Highly participatory class environments. This is not a lecture- and final-exam format class. ES22 is case- and project-based, highly participatory and appropriate for students who embrace that.
    - Occasional changes in the syllabus schedule. The teaching staff works with outside organizations to develop custom case studies and challenges. This means scheduling changes are likely to arise. We do our best to keep this to a minimum.
    - Fun, experimental, environment. This is not your typical engineering course, and not meant to be. This course focuses on idea development and design aspects of engineering. ES22 cultivates an animated environment because it suits the content (design for desirability) and format (competitive weekly challenges). Students who are looking for a more traditional, lecture-based learning environment should consider whether this course is right for them.


    **OLD STUFF** 2013 - 2014


    Challenge 1: Duality of human nature + Breaking down the 4th wall
    Check out projects with distinction
    Challenge 2: Dignity and strength in the sunset years
    Check out projects with distinction
    Challenge 3: Interpersonal displays of status
    Check out projects with distinction
    Challenge 4: Embodying different price points
    Check out projects with distinction
    Challenge 5: Improving the desirability of an existing product
    Check out projects with distinction
    Challenge 6: Getting out of your head and inside another's
    Check out projects with distinction
    Challenge 8: Designing for positive emotion and danceability
    Check out projects with distinction
    Challenge 9: Design an icon
    Presented at Harvard Innovation Lab for our final presentations.


    Challenge 1: Apply lessons from Swarovski + Design Museum’s digital crystal exhibit. Our first challenge was inspired by a case that Dr. Altringer created on Swarovski’s partnership with the Design Museum in London for the Digital Crystal exhibit in 2012. The exhibition brought together up-and-coming designers from around the world to produce pieces that showcased what is possible with crystal as a material. The first Design Survivor challenge was to apply lessons from the Swarovski case to design an exhibit showcasing what is possible with bamboo as a material. Their submissions were required to incorporate the lessons, and have branding benefits for the Black Belt region of Alabama, a low-income agricultural region shifting to bamboo production as a higher yield crop.
    PAN-DA-BOO - Slides // Interview
    Bam-Bam - Slides // Interview
    Black Belt Bama - [no slides] // Interview

    Challenge 2: Apply lessons from IDEO’s prototype for the Diego Powered Dissector System. Our second challenge was inspired by IDEO’s prototype for the Diego Powered Dissector System for Gyrus ACMI, ENT Division. IDEO’s work on this product is as well-known amongst designers for its prototyping story as it is for its final design, which received numerous design awards. The prototype was quickly created during a client meeting, as designers worked to interpret what the clients were describing, and communicate a potential concept. The mock-up was a rapid prototype, comprised of easily found materials, and it exemplified the benefits of ‘thinking in 3D’. IDEO’s designers are not surgeons and are unfamiliar with nasal anatomy. The prototype and the speed of mocking it up – with only a dry-erase marker, film canister, and tape – allowed the designers to communicate their concept quickly and for the client to respond equally quickly with feedback on the potential design and whether it could work for them.
    Following a workshop on prototyping with found objects and thinking in 3D, in this second challenge, the students created rapid prototype solutions based on case studies representing the challenges faced during surgery by morbidly obese patients in the operating room. This was purposefully a challenge area that students had not likely thought of or new very much about. They learned to explore the problem by thinking in 3D, with the objective of producing prototypes that would enable a professional in the field to quickly understand their design concept and give user feedback.
    Bed Petal - Slides // Interview
    Inflatable Solutions - Slides // Interview

    Challenge 3: Apply lessons from Zipcar’s made-for-mobile app. In our third challenge, Dr. Altringer created a case inspired by Zipcar’s mobile app, and Zipcar CEO, Scott Griffith’s, philosophy about the future of mobile. Following the Zipcar case, students learned to replicate existing apps quickly. In our app workshop, in conjunction with Occom Group, students learned that it is possible to create interactive demos of well-known mobile apps, like Kayak and Air BnB. They were then challenged to apply these skills to replicating an app of their choice. They had to substantially improve the existing app according to the following criteria: it had to provide the user with what s/he needs, when s/he needs it, where ever s/he is located, and using the tools s/he has handy. Submissions had to be interactive, and to clearly highlight the improvements made over the original app.
    Starbucks // Slides // Interview
    Harvard App // Slides // Interview
    TKTS // Slides // Interview
    Culture Now // Slides // Interview

    Challenge 4: Open App Challenge. In the open app challenge, students had two weeks to create the concept of a new app (in week one) and to design an interactive demo for the app (in week two). For the conceptual challenge, they needed to identify a problem, to articulate why the problem area mattered, to show how their app solves the problem better than alternatives, and to estimate what it would take to make the app into a viable business. For the product challenge, students created an interactive demo of their concept.
    Challenge Me - Presentation // Interview
    One Good Deed - Presentation // Interview
    Delorean- Presentation // Interview
    Tripoff - Presentation // Interview
    Link - Presentation // Interview

    Challenge 5: What makes online content go viral? Our class studied research on what makes things go viral online, with a focus on blog posts and infographics. From this, I created a set of examples and a checklist of factors thought to make content go viral. Students used the checklist as a guide for creating content with the intention of releasing it (though they were not required to release it, only to create it as if they were going to release it with the intention of reaching the broadest possible audience). The checklist included items like: sufficient coverage of the topic, emotional impact, practicality, interest surprise and author credibility.
    Defenestration of Cats - Presentation // Interview
    Most Blank Cities - Presentation // (no video)
    Think Again Startup Cities - Presentation // Interview
    What's in an Hour - Presentation // Interview
    Sitting is the New Smoking - Presentation // Interview

    Challenge 6: Creative in 3D. The purpose of this challenge was primarily to introduce the students to Solidworks software and 3D printing. Students learned to duplicate the design of an everyday object, a ball-point pen in Solidworks. They were then challenged to design a novel spin on the everyday pen, and particularly to explore personalization as a desirability strategy. Their designs had to incorporate the original pen casing, and would be judged on design functionality (they had to write) and originality.
    Call Me Maybe Pen - Slides // Interview
    Penna - Slides // Interview
    Boomball - Slides // (no interview)
    Dimple - Slides // (no interview)
    Pretty in Pen - (no presentation online) // Interview
    Quadripen - Slides // Interview
    Wolverink - Slides // Interview

    Challenge 7: Iconic Design. Inspired by three iconic and/or trendy product case studies, students were challenged to create their own. They learned the story behind Diane von Furstenburg’s iconic wrap dress, the story behind von Dutch’s trendy trucker cap, and the story behind Swarovski’s best-selling Slake bracelet.
    Bob - Slides // Interview
    Digishelf - Slides // Interview
    Dipp'd - Slides // Interview
    Thanks Mints - Slides // Interview

    Example student projects:

    Boston Magazine featured the class here: Harvard Class Teaches the Design of Desirability.

  • Contact

    Past talks & Workshops

    “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

    Only engage, and then the mind grows heated. Begin it, and the work will be completed.”

    - Goethe (in German)
    as translated by John Anster

    Design Practice Roles

    Founder, Ames Studio
    Founder, Desirability Lab (blog; on a break)
    Contact: ba[at]

    Artist Portfolio: (physical, digital)

    Arts Curation:Balter Foundation @balterfoundation