Desire and Intent

Desire vs. Intent

Given the semantic nature of the argument, I’ve tried to avoid splitting this hair. But I’m started to see an important distinction between two very similar words which are often used to describe a user’s potential behavioral motivation–desire and intent.

While these two words appear to have the same meaning in certain contexts, I think they probably have very different origins. It may be anecdotal and even difficult to demonstrate, but I believe there is an argument that while the two concepts may lead to the same end result (i.e. behavior), they’re really two separate devices which often facilitate a user’s decision making in combination with each other, like two spinning cogs.

Let’s take a look at the definitions.

According to New Oxford the word desire means, “a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.”

The word intent, on the other hand, means, “resolved or determined to do (something).” And according to Merriam Webster this something is “usually clearly formulated or planned […]”

So, intent then seems to require some level of forethought, whereas desire requires nothing but a longing. I’ll take it a step further and say that within interaction design intent usually takes a specific action. This action is usually rooted in a basic need (i.e. to do something),

Meanwhile, desire has more to do with a thought process rooted in a basic want (usually to know something). Perhaps this is oversimplifying a bit, but I think the two ideas are isolated enough for closer examination.

This distinction can manifest itself in many ways within a typical human-centered design. The easiest example I can think of are the everyday links found on many e-commerce sites to either “Learn more” or “Buy now.” While it could be argued that both are intents (or desires), the link to learn more is usually designed to precede any decision-making by a user. Therefore, if we accept that intent requires forethought or planning, the learn more link becomes much more about the fulfillment of the user’s on-demand desire (and if I’m honest, to instill enough confidence into the user for them to ultimately have the intent to purchase).

Of course, desire can lead to other decisions, insights, or navigational paths, while intent is usually more directed and orchestrated by a specific design or process. Again, I may be simplifying an already gray area, but I think this contrast may reflect a basic design tension in and of itself and can be used to resolve designs that require various levels of decision making by an end user.