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Oftentimes references to and appraisals of product design (e.g., on websites, in magazines) concentrate on the aesthetics of the product’s visual appearance. The importance of this facet of visual design of products is now well acknowledged, particularly in attracting consumers to them. This is of no dispute. Visual design, however, has an informational capacity and it can communicate to consumers on other aspects embedded in the product or reflected from it.  These facets are functional, symbolic (personal, social) and ergonomic (affecting ease-of-use) that may be inferred from visual design or appearance of a product. They deserve no less attention than aesthetics in discussions of product design from a marketing point-of-view.

Product design did not gain much awareness or interest from marketing and consumer scholars until the mid-1990s. The researchers Peter Bloch and Robert Veryzer made each this critical observation in separate articles in 1995 as they started to conceptualise the meanings and roles of product design with respect to consumer behaviour.  Bloch referred to the powers of good design in attracting consumers, communicating to them, and adding value by enhancing the quality of their usage experiences (1). Veryzer wrote of the low relevance consumer researchers attributed to product design and aesthetics (e.g., superficial styling, related primarily to works of art) that impeded the progress of consumer research to that time in these areas. He set out to start developing a theory on the contributions of product design to consumer-product interactions, and how different considerations (e.g., aesthetic, functional, communication) affect varied consumer reactions (e.g., understanding the product, aesthetic response)(2). Both Bloch and Veryzer recognized the importance of the communicative functions of visual product design beyond aesthetics.

The aesthetics of appearance of a product ascribe to its beauty, evoking visual appeal. It relies on physical properties in the design, such as form, size (proportions), texture (materials) and colours, and how they combine or belong together (i.e., a holistic view, unity of design elements). professional designers may relate to harmony and balance. More commonly, innate preferences of people are shaped by Gestalt rules pertaining, for example, to symmetry, similarity, proximity, repetition and closure. An aesthetic pleasing appearance  increases consumers’ attraction to look at products longer, hold and obtain them.

Nevertheless, the visual design of a product can tell consumers beyond experiencing its aesthetics and appeal. Design of a product entails generally the composition and arrangement of components and overall configuration of the product. Only some of the components are readily visible to consumers (i.e., on surface); many others most relevant to the product’s orderly functioning are hidden from them, and for a good reason. Thereof appearance plays a vital role in communicating to consumers about the function and usage of a product. While it is widely accepted that “form follows function”, one should observe that in many cases form tells people how a product can or should be used (i.e., from a consumer perspective, function is determined by form). In its communicative role, design incorporates important visual and iconic cues about product use and mode of operation. The visual comprehensibility of a product is therefore vital to successful consumer-product interaction (2).

  • Features of products (e.g., electric, electronic and digital), and how to activate them, should be easily identifiable; symbols need to be self-explanatory as much as possible or be easily learnt. The consumer should be able to make basic operations without reading a manual, especially if he or she is experienced with that type of product (e.g., setting parameters and taking a photo shot on a camera). Manuals are more often refered for performing more complex or specialised tasks. Consumers expect to receive fundamental information about the product from its appearance.

Crilly, Moultrie, and Clarkson elaborate on Shannon’s model of communication, as formerly interpreted in the context of product design.


  • The source is the designer or design team
  • The transmitter is the product by its (visual) design
  • The channel is the environment in which consumer-product interaction occurs
  • The receiver entails the perceptual senses of the consumer
  • The destination is the consumer’s faculty for response, incorporating cognitive, affective and behavioural responses.

The researchers concentrate on cognitive responses to visual product design, and identify through a literature review three categories: (a) Aesthetic Impression is the sensation that results from perception of attractiveness; (b) Semantic Interpretation pertains to what a product seems to say about its function, mode-of-use and qualities; and (c) Symbolic Association relates to what a product may say about its owner or user (personal and social significance attached to the design). Decoding the “design message” from appearance and making judgements thereafter is part of cognitive response (3). Crilly et al. note that different types of emotions may stem from all cognitive categories; moreover, there are considerable interdependencies between cognitive and affective responses, where cognition is leading to affect and affect is influencing cognition.

Crilly and his colleagues suggest that aesthetic impression should account for objective qualities of design as well as subjective experiences of consumers. As a second dimension they distinguish between information and concinnity (harmonious arrangement of elements) originating in design. Information may objectively refer to the level of contrast between elements comprising the product’s design against its surroundings or among the elements themselves, while subjective information reflects a degree of novelty perceived by consumers, arising from deviation of the design from forms familiar to them. Novelty induces greater interest, but care should be taken because excessive deviations might cause greater difficulty for consumers to identify the correct category a product belongs in (e.g., by comparing to familiar prototypes), leading to confusion. Concinnity at an objective level would indicate whether the design is in good order (e.g., following Gestalt rules); subjectively, it reflects the extent to which the design makes sense to viewers (i.e., easier to understand, assign meaning, based for example on cultural norms or comparison to other relevant objects).

Semantic interpretation and symbolic association may play a more complex or nuanced role in communication from design (Veryzer recommended distinguishing between aesthetic and communicative roles). The semantics of design pertain primarily to qualities of the product, mode-of-operation and ease-of-use. Physical properties are relevant mainly with respect to how a product should be handled (e.g., its density, stability, fragility). Most importantly, Crilly et al. refer to how consumers may infer from visible components of the product — its layout, feature buttons or switches, levers etc. — how to operate it correctly and more effectively, and how easy using the product is going to be. Among the examples they give: a grooved handle may suggest in what direction it should be turned and how much force should be applied, or flashing switches signal they should be switched off.

The semantics implied from design may refer in particular to affordances (what a product is suitable for or made to do, given its form); constraints (what a product is limited in doing and should not be forced to do); and mappings (how a user’s actions relate to corresponding behaviour of the system). Mapping suggests in this context an interesting aspect of visual compatibility that seems desirable between ‘handles’  for operating a product and its form and response — buttons of a gas stove arranged to fit the layout of burners in the stove itself; levers in an electric-car-seat-control-panel for moving the seat arranged to represent the seat itself.

Think for a moment of TV sets, but not the current flat screens; reflect instead on TV “boxes” from past decades, before the 1990s. This domain demonstrates so well how technology and tastes in design have changed side-by-side over the years. The TV sets from the 1940s to 1970s were casted in a wooden “box” housing.  The TV set was perceived to a great extent as a piece of furniture in the house, and very likely it was designed in wood to match better in look with other furnitures. Early on owners used to put their TV set in a cabin with doors, as if they were not sure about its nature and wanted to conceal it in a furniture. From the 1950s the attitude changed and people were more open and happy to show the innovative technological appliance in their house. From the late 1970s the wooden housing was replaced with injection-moulded plastic. At first frames still adopted a wooden look but the appearance has gradually changed to black and grey-metalic look. The trend transformed from reflecting craftmanship and traditional warm appearance to modern cool appearance that puts technology a front.

Through several decades control panels were usually visible on the right-hand side of the screen. In the 1990s, as remote control handsets became more prevalent, control panels were reduced and became less apparent. This was partly done to leave more space for larger screens (e.g., 26”). Then came the flat screens (plasma or LCD, >32”), and control panels vanished from the front of TV.  Some controls may be found on the TV back but most selections and tuning the viewer is expected to perform on the remote control.  This is the second important change in TV sets: they leave no visual cues for their mode-of-operation easily accessible on the product itself, relying on its remote accessory. The TV sets are now made to take least space possible in the house. Manufacturers of flat screen TVs give priority to a “clean” visual design outwards and their advanced technology inwards. But from a communicative perspective, one may ask if this is the better user-friendly approach. It could be more comfortable and re-assuring for users to place a few controls (e.g., power, sound, channel buttons) on a front panel below the screen rather than hide them on the TV back.

Symbolic association turns our attention from the product to its owner or user. It may involve attributes that correspond to the user’s own personality (e.g., enhance or corroborate one’s self-image) as well as reflect desirable attributes or social standing of the user to others based on product’s appearance. Those product-person symbols may be shaped by the sociocultural context of use. Symbolic associations have been classified in literature, for example, as self-expressive symbolism (supporting one’s unique personality, idiosyncrasy or distinction, and differentiation from others) and categorical symbolism (suggesting one’s group membership, including social position and status, as reflected frequently via shared consumption symbols)(3).

One of the more prominent examples given for products with strong symbolic associations are clothing garments, especially the more fashionable they are, and contingent on type (materials), purpose and style of the garment. Let us look, however, to another domain perhaps less often used as an example: Think of bright beige leather seats in a car. Such seats reflect elegance and high quality; to the car’s owner the leather may also signal softness and comfort (semantic meanings). The leather seats may symbolise elegance of the car owner himself, enhance self-importance to the owner and suggest to others who see the car on the street that the owner has to be a respected person of higher prestige. (The implied symbols seem to matter to men more than to women.)

Consumers perceive physical properties in forming impression of a product’s visual design and appraising it. But to formulate their experience or judgements they translate or map the physical terms (e.g., form, size, colour, surface and texture) onto abstract attributes. Blijlevens, Creusen and Schoorman who studied and identified three such attributes for durable products note that consumers differ, however, from professional (industrial) designers in their understanding and the attributes they use to describe a design. Design literature uses terms such as harmony, unity, symmetry, typicality, massiveness and naturalness that ordinary or design-novice consumers are not familiar with and may not understand. The undesirable implication is that consumers frequently do not grasp the meaning of appearance embedded in the product as intended by its designers (4).

  • The three attributes in the model based on consumer descriptions constructed by Blijlevens et al. are: (a) Modernity (descriptions of ‘modern’, ‘oldish/old-fashioned’ [reversed], ‘futuristic’; (b) Simplicity (‘simple’, ‘minimalistic’, ‘plain’); (c) Playfulness (‘playful’, ‘funny’). Of the three attributes, modernity coincides directly with a parallel attribute used by designers while simplicity correlates inversely with an attribute of ‘complexity’ in design literature. Yet, playfulness  is an attribute more distinctive of consumers with no attribute close enough in meaning as used by designers (regarded as more accurate and deeper attributes).
  • The researchers suggest that (i) consumers’ attributes should complement, not replace, those used by designers to provide consumer viewpoint; (ii) there should be continued effort to study the mapping of physical properties onto consumer attributes; and (iii) marketers should be cognizant of changes in tastes and fashions of aesthetics and visual design that may alter existing relations or mappings over time.

Aesthetic appearance of products is a likely source of pleasure; consumers enjoy talking about appealing and creative visual design, the more so when they have greater acumen in these matters. But the picture cannot be complete, from a marketing perspective, without relating to semantic and symbolic connotations emanating from the visual design of a product because they have important influence on consumer decisions. They are significant to the practical use of a product as well as extended psychological (self-image) and social implications of product ownership and usage.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

References:

(1) Seeking the Ideal Form: Product Design and Consumer Response; Peter H. Bloch, 1995; Journal of Marketing, 59 (3), pp. 16-29.

(2) The Place of Product Design and Aesthetics in Consumer Research; Robert W. Veryzer Jr., 1995; in NA — Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 22, F.R. Kardes and M. Sujan (eds.), pp. 641-645, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.    http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=7824

(3) Seeing Things: Consumer Response to the Visual Domain in Product Design; Nathan Crilly, James Moultrie, & P. John Clarkson, 2004; Design Studies, 25 (6), pp. 547-577.

(4) How Consumers Perceive Product Appearance: The Identification of Three Product Appearance Attributes; Janneke Blijlevens, Marielle E.H. Creusen, & Jan P. Schoorman, 2009; International Journal of Design, 3(3), pp. 27-35.  http://www.ijdesign.org/ojs/index.php/IJDesign/article/view/535/272

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