Thursday, January 10, 2008

finding meaning through matter

I wrote this for a project that my good buddy Jamie and I did together a few months ago.

Here goes:


Through increased interaction, increased control, memory stimulation, and sensory engagement, more meaningful experiences with products can be facilitated.

Understanding human motivations

Psychologist Abraham Maslow synthesized his theory of human motivation into a Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is usually represented as a pyramid consisting of five levels. The bottom level incorporating basic physiological needs such as food and water, the second concerning safety needs, the third involving love and belonging, the fourth self esteem, and the fifth self-actualization. After each step of needs is met, you move further up in the pyramid, eventually reaching self-actualization, which involves an understanding and acceptance of one’s self.

In the developed world, our physiological needs, such as food and water, and safety needs, such as shelter and security, have been met. Therefore, consumers are motivated by social, egotistical, and self-actualizing needs. Perhaps because of the ease at which our basic needs have been met, we expect our social, egotistical, and self-actualization needs to be fulfilled with equal ease. But, maybe because of the lack of actual physical labor we perform in order to accomplish our basic need requirements, it has become even more difficult for us to reach self-actualization. We have felt no sense of accomplishment from our water, food, and shelter acquisitions, and we need that positive feedback in order to feel good about ourselves.

No longer do we exhaust ourselves working the land to provide ourselves not only with food, but a means of income. We never get a chance to experience the sense of achievement that physical labor brings. So, we look for this fulfillment elsewhere; often through consumption. But, the objects we turn to for this emotional support were not designed to be our mentors. Jonathan Chapman agrees, “consumers are unable to develop and sustain attachments with objects lacking such characteristics as the objects do not posses the diversity and pluralism of character required to healthily sustain enquiry.”

We are relying on products for more than they were originally designed for, and they are failing horribly. Examples of these failed relationships are evident in landfills everywhere. Perfectly functional products topple out of dumpsters with no crime but not engaging us on an emotional level. Chapman explains, “we are consumers of meaning and not matter; it could be argued that material objects simply provide a tangible means through which these connotations may be signified to the user. We transfer resources into products that – in a sense – provide us with existential mirrors, allowing us to view and experience our dreams and desires in real time.” We purchased these goods with hopes of feeling a sense of fulfillment or a greater sense of self, and when this gratification did not occur, the goods were promptly disposed of. Times are changing, our needs are changing, and therefore products must also change.

How can we facilitate more meaningful relationships between users and products?

Through increased interaction, increased control, memory stimulation, and sensory engagement, more meaningful experiences with products can be facilitated.

Increasing interaction – making the user do work

First, through increased interaction, users will not only appreciate the product more, but will develop a more significant relationship with it. Perhaps just more interaction won’t solve the problem either, maybe more physical labor needs to occur also? When tasks can be accomplished with incredible ease and continually happen faster than before, are we benefiting or suffering? We seem to think that our lives will be made better and simpler if we purchase the new toaster that butters our bread, cooks our eggs, and fries our bacon. But, does it pat us on the back, too? Because no longer do we feel that sense of accomplishment after preparing a meal for ourselves, that feeling is gone. We have traded that feeling for the supposed benefits of less time and less work.

Jonathan Chapman explains that we have become “a passive audience who simply presses go, then stands back to watch as anonymous black boxes perform their magic.” Our interaction with these “push and go” products is extremely limited and as a result, unfulfilling. Products such as these, which allow us to accomplish almost anything quickly and easily with just a press of a button, exist because we think we don’t have time to perform these tasks on our own. How can we give the user the pride of accomplishing a physical task?

Increasing control : letting the user be the designer

Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, believes that “…human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. And occasionally, dead." With this, we brought up the fact that a lot of people deny any ability to be creative, but inherently have a need for control. But humans are naturally creative beings. Creativity can be found in the way one arranges their groceries, the way one cooks a meal, and many other minor everyday experiences.

Chapman also says "Our culture tends to convince us that, mostly, we're not good enough to be creative." "Creative" can be an intimidating word for people who claim to lack "creativity". So, with that said, how can we design something that gives the user options and the freedom to be subconsciously creative? The user must be given enough room to be creative, but not enough room to make a mistake, because if a mistake is made, a negative connotation will be associated with the experience, and therefore, the product.

When the design is left “unfinished” to an extent, the user can, if desired, play a role in the design process. This is best accomplished with finishing touches, as users may not want to undertake a large, daunting task. Allowing the user to make the final design decisions may ensure a longer life for the product. It is difficult to throw away products with personal touches, let alone products that you personalized yourself. Theoretically, the product should exemplify the user remarkably well since the user is the final designer.

Triggering memory : new and old

Products that somehow engage our memory seem to work their way into our souls. The bonds formed with products that we have had numerous experiences with cannot be replaced. Everyone has a hard time giving up their teddy bear, baseball mitt, or first blanket. These objects have lived with us in a sense, and throwing them away is almost like throwing a part of ourselves away. As designers, we can only design experiences with products that are memorable; the user’s mind must do the rest.

When the user can learn through interaction with the product and develop skill, not only are memories created, emotional bonds are born. New memories become old memories and products grow with the user. The act of learning to use a product is the first memory with it, and if successful, a positive reminder of the beginning of a healthy relationship.

Triggering past memories through familiar forms of new products can produce deep emotional connections that can be built upon through time. But, can we assume through age, gender, location, or even income that certain forms will trigger memories, and more importantly, trigger positive, meaningful ones? Past experiences are extremely diverse and tricky to speculate, so perhaps the emotional appeal of a product should not rely entirely on triggering a past memory, for the design fails if incorrect assumptions are made.

The experience of using the product must be memorable if it is to be successful, but the user must be kept from becoming bored. "...if a product relinquishes all meaning in a single fleeting glance - experientially - consumers have nowhere left to go. By designing products to patiently deliver a series of future discoveries and revelatory happenings, the life of an object is dramatically increased as users remain captivated in anticipation of the next event," states Jonathan Chapman. But, surprises cannot be too unexpected. The nature of a surprise is an element of the unknown, but if too much of a particular design is left unknown, the user simply will not understand. A balance must be found between usability and subtle surprises are the safest.

Senses : emotion and memory attachment points?

Psychological Theorist William James believes that, “we appreciate a place not just by its impact on our visual cortex but by the way in which it sounds, it feels and smells. Some of these sensual experiences elide, for instance our full understanding of wood is often achieved by a perception of its smell, its texture (which can be appreciated by both looking and feeling) and by the way in which it modulates the acoustics of the space.” Our senses are always engaged, but not often does a single product command all of our senses. While using a product that has no smell, the environment we occupy commands our olfactory sense. The overall experience of using a product can be transformed into a more memorable and meaningful event if more of our senses are employed.

It is impossible to just look at a product. While looking, we involuntarily smell, hear, remember, and even observe taste. All of these sensations tie into the overall experience of perceiving a product and act as memory markers. The senses are attachment points for memory and emotion. The more senses that are engaged, the more likely the product will be remembered.

The notions of increasing interaction, increasing control, and stimulating memory all tie into sensory engagement. It is impossible not to increase sensory engagement when attempting to enhance experience.


Chapman, Jonathan. Emotionally Durable Design Earthscan, London, 2005.

Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling Upon Happiness Knopf, New York, 2006.

Malnar, Joy Monice and Vodvarka, Frank. Sensory Design University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2004.

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