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Extending product life by introducing symbolic meaning: an exploration of design strategies to support subjective well-being

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Because products are often discarded while still fully functioning, it may be possible to support durability with design that stimulates a more enduring product-owner relationship. This paper is based on the proposition that one promising approach to support such prolonged relevance is by developing products with a higher predisposition for the attribution of happiness-related symbolic meaning. The study was based on a framework with six types of symbolic product meanings: positive relations with others, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, autonomy, and self-acceptance. In a pre-study, fifty existing symbolically meaningful products were selected based on these six symbolic meanings. In the main study, seven designers and design researchers analysed these fifty products with the aim to uncover underlying design directions. This resulted in sixteen design directions. The directions can act as a source of inspiration to designers when aiming to design for a long-term meaningful product-owner relationship.
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PLATE conference - Nottingham Trent University, 17/19 June 2015
Casais M. et al.
Extending product life by introducing symbolic meaning
- 44 -
Extending product life by introducing symbolic meaning: an
exploration of design strategies to support subjective well-being
Casais M.
(a)
, Mugge R.
(b)
and Desmet P.M.A.
(a)
a) Dept. of Ind. Des. Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, Delft University of Technology, Delft, NL.
b) Dept. of Prod. Innov. Mang. Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, Delft University of Technology, Delft, NL
Keywords: symbolic meaning; subjective well-being; personal significance; design strategies; product
longevity.
Abstract: Because products are often discarded while still fully functioning, it may be possible to
support durability with design that stimulates a more enduring product-owner relationship. This paper
is based on the proposition that one promising approach to support such prolonged relevance is by
developing products with a higher predisposition for the attribution of happiness-related symbolic
meaning. The study was based on a framework with six types of symbolic product meanings: positive
relations with others, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, autonomy, and self-
acceptance. In a pre-study, fifty existing symbolically meaningful products were selected based on
these six symbolic meanings. In the main study, seven designers and design researchers analysed
these fifty products with the aim to uncover underlying design directions. This resulted in sixteen design
directions. The directions can act as a source of inspiration to designers when aiming to design for a
long-term meaningful product-owner relationship.
Introduction
Many products are disposed of while they are
still functioning properly (van Nes, 2010;
Bakker, Wang, Huisman & Hollander, 2014).
From a sustainability perspective, this is
undesirable. For designers, it is interesting to
search for ways to persuade consumers to
keep and use their products for a longer period
of time by designing products with more durable
relevance and value for users (Champman,
2005).
Symbolic meaning is found to be an important
source of product attachment (Mugge,
Schoormans & Schifferstein, 2005; 2008). This
vital insight served as the starting point for the
present research, which focuses specifically on
happiness-related symbolic meaning. If a
product symbolizes aspects of a person’s
happiness, he/she is more likely to keep it,
because losing the product implies that the
strong symbolic meaning and thus the
‘happiness trigger’ is lost (Csikszentmihalyi &
Rochberg-Halton, 1981; Belk, 1988).
The present study aims to formulate design
directions that can help designers develop
products with a higher predisposition for the
attribution of happiness-related symbolic
meaning.
To explore these design directions, we build on
the work of Casais, Mugge and Desmet (2015)
which describes how people’s subjective well-
being (i.e., happiness) can be represented in
the symbolic meanings of products. Based on
Ryff’s (1989) model of psychological well-
being, the framework proposed six types of
happiness-related symbolic meaning in
products: 1) the symbolic meaning of positive
relations with others, found in possessions that
represent meaningful affiliations which provide
a sense of belongingness (e.g., an heirloom
family necklace); 2) the symbolic meaning of
personal growth, found in possessions that
symbolize transitions, acceptance of past
experiences, and continued self-development
(e.g, a set of military name tags); 3) the
symbolic meaning of purpose in life, found in
possessions that symbolize the individual's
goals and aspirations in life (e.g., a parenthood
ring); 4) the symbolic meaning of environmental
mastery, found in possessions that symbolize
the individual's ability to master his/her context
and build beneficial networks (e.g., a pair of
soccer shoes); 5) the symbolic meaning of
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autonomy, found in possessions that symbolize
particular ways of living and life choices (e.g., a
sewing machine); and 6) the symbolic meaning
of self-acceptance, found in possessions that
symbolize the positive aspects of the individual,
promoting a positive self-image (e.g., a stuffed
fluffy bunny).
While these six types of happiness-related
symbolic meanings can be of use when
analysing existing products, they are too
abstract to be of direct use in design processes.
In this paper we report a qualitative study in
which participants were asked to analyse and
uncover potential design directions from a set
of product examples.
Methodology
Stimuli
To ensure a large variety in symbolically
meaningful product examples, an assortment of
100 consumer durables was collected. The
main search criterion was to look for products
that were in some way open for symbolic
meaning attribution, in which the work of Casais
et al. (2015) served as a reference. The search
was conducted in several well-known design
blogs and online magazines such as Dezeen,
Design Milk, Domus, Wallpaper, and Core 77.
The assortment comprised of products
available in the market and product concepts. It
contained identifiable elements relating to one
or more happiness-related symbolic meanings,
either embedded in tangible features or implied
in the activities suggested by the product (e.g.,
reflective activities, storage of memories).
A set of 100 stimuli cards was printed, each
card representing one product example. The
cards had a dimension of 10 x 5 cm, and
contained an image and information about the
product (Figure 1). Because the set of 100
cards was too extensive to use in the main
study, a pre-selection of the 50 best product
examples was made. This selection was done
by four experts in Positive Design (i.e., design
for subjective well-being) in a one-hour group
session. Based on the specialist insights, the
most striking and convincing examples were
selected. The final selection can be found
online at: http://symbolicmeaningresearch.we-
ebly.com/.
Figure 1. Stimuli cards used in the study.
Participants
Seven design researchers and designers with
experience in designing products (at least a
Bachelor Degree in industrial design) were
recruited (see Table 1).
Procedure
To keep the task feasible for the participants,
the study was split into two subsequent
sessions: categorization and analysis. These
two sessions were conducted individually and
recorded (video, audio, and photographs).
Three days before the first session, the
participants received the 50 product cards by
email, and were asked to read each card to get
acquainted with the product examples.
The first session started with an explanation
about the framework of happiness-related
symbolic meaning. The participant was asked
to read a short summary of each type of
meaning, which included examples of
symbolically meaningful product stories
discussed in Casais et al. (2015).
Following the introduction, the 50 product
example cards were provided to the participant.
The participant was instructed to divide the
product examples over the six types of symbolic
meaning in a quick and intuitive way, vocalizing
his/her thoughts, and to use post-it notes in the
examples that were suitable for multiple
meanings.
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Participant code
Qualification
Role
DRP01
MSc of Product Design
PhD candidate (Design Theory and Methodology)
DP02
MSc of Industrial Design Engineering (Design for Interaction)
User-centred designer
DRP03
MSc of Industrial Design Engineering (Design for Interaction)
PhD candidate (Positive Design)
DP04
MSc of Industrial Design Engineering (Integrated Product Design)
Industrial designer
DRP05
MSc of Design
PhD candidate (Design for Sustainability)
DP06
Bachelor of Engineering (Industrial Product Design)
Product designer / production assistant
DRP07
MSc of Industrial Design Engineering (Design for Interaction)
PhD candidate (Product Conceptualization and
Communication)
Table 1. Summary of the participants (DRP= Design Researcher, DP=Designer).
In the second session, the participant was
asked to analyse the categorization and
uncover ‘design for happiness’ directions.
Specifically, the participant was instructed to
analyse the possible strategies behind the
product examples in each group. To help the
participant uncover potential design directions,
questions were asked that stimulated
exploration. For example, by asking why the
participant placed a certain product in a
category; by asking the participant to consider
the designer’s perspective and possible
approaches that might have been used when
designing the product example; or by asking the
participant to consider his/her own descriptions
from the categorization exercise. Once all
groups of products were analysed, the
participant combined similar design directions
into better defined ones, and selected multiple
examples to illustrate them.
Results and Discussion
Each participant took on average 3 hours and
50 minutes to complete both sessions and
uncovered 10 to 30 design directions.
Following the procedure of Gioia, Corly and
Hamilton (2012), the design directions
produced by the participants were analysed in
three coding cycles. In each cycle, the
researchers looked for similarity in the
descriptions provided by the participants (in the
post-it notes used in the sessions,
complemented by the video and audio
recordings), identified labels trying to remain
close to the participants’ phrasing and intention,
and grouped those into clusters. The product
examples were used to illustrate each cluster
according to the selection made by the
participants. This process resulted in 16 design
directions (Table 2), each illustrated by a
product example. For the purpose of
exemplifying design directions from each
symbolic meaning, six examples are presented
and discussed in this section.
Design direction for positive relations with
others
A resulting design direction for the symbolic
meaning of positive relations with others is:
“Support meaningful affiliations, facilitating the
practice of specific belongingness activities.”
This design direction suggests that by making a
belongingness practice easier, a product can
increase its value for the user because it makes
him/her feel like a part of something bigger. This
can be achieved by providing guidance or by
simplifying said activity, which encourages the
user to be a part of that meaningful affiliation or
belief system. For example, the EL Sajjadah by
SOPDS is a carpet that facilitates the praying
ritual by indicating the direction of Mecca
through an embedded compass and recreating
the atmosphere of a mosque through light and
printed patterns (Figure 2).
The desire to form social attachments and to
feel inclusion is linked to a fundamental human
need for belongingness (Baumeister & Leary,
1995), which can be answered and supported
through belongingness activities.
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Symbolic meaning
Design direction
Product examples
Positive relations
with others
Support meaningful affiliations
El Sajjadah (praying carpet)
Embody characteristics of a
group
El botijo (water colling container)
Personal growth
Support active personal
development
OWL: On the Wisdom of Life
(time capsule)
Embody personal growth
My life urn (memento mori)
Support acceptance and
growth from past experiences
365 (clock)
Enhance memories
Heirloom (display and recorder)
Purpose in life
Encourage positive change
Blank Wall Clock
Provide a sense of control
Kitchen safe
Keep track of progress
999 Bottles (water bottle)
Environmental
mastery
Improve multi-sensorial
communication
Elfoid (hybrid cellphone)
Provide a context for
meaningful interaction
Family matters (role play toys)
Autonomy
Destigmatize
No country for old men (furniture)
Design for mindfulness
The standard collection (lamp)
Redirect the user's attention
Konnekt (game)
Self-acceptance
Allow shared transformation
Meaning of time (clock)
Allow self-expression
Favourite things (lamp)
Table 2. Table with the resulting design directions illustrated by product examples.
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Figure 2. The El Sajjadah by SOPDS. Source:
www.sonerozenc.com/product/el-sajjadah.
Design direction for personal growth
An example of a design direction for the
symbolic meaning of personal growth is:
“Support acceptance and growth from past
experiences, designing a tangible
representation of the passage of time.” This
design direction indicates that a product that is
designed to facilitate reflection by providing an
overview of past events, moments, and lessons
learned can influence the subjective well-being
of the user. For example, the 365 Knitting Clock
by Siren Wilhelmsen is a wall clock that
represents time by continuously knitting a scarf
over the course of one year (Figure 3).
Reflection activities (e.g., journals, meditation)
have been shown to improve subjective well-
being (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Lyubomirsky,
2008). Literature on the topic adds that context
influences reflection, and that reflection
requires the individual’s active engagement (for
a review see Rogers, 2001). Thus, introducing
(material) triggers in the environment can
facilitate reflective practices. In the given
example, the knitting of time allows the user to
reflect about the past by allowing him/her to
symbolically wear the previous year.
Design direction for purpose in life
For the symbolic meaning of purpose in life, a
resulting design direction is: “Encourage
positive change, providing an external trigger
that suggests beneficial activities or
behaviours.” This design direction proposes
that a product can be a catalyser which
encourages a user into positive actions. As
such, a product is able to become more relevant
for happiness by symbolizing a desired
behavioural change.
Figure 3. The 365 Knitting Clock by Siren
Wilhelmsen. Source: www.sirenelisewilhelmsen
.com/work.html.
Figure 4. The Blank Wall Clock by Alessi. Source:
store.alessi.com.
For example, the Blank Wall Clock by Alessi
has a blank face and comes with a marker
which allows the user to draw or write self-
chosen activities or thoughts in each hour
(Figure 4). When these align with the
achievement of personally meaningful goals, it
becomes a source of inspiration for the user.
This provides the user with the opportunity to
define a feed forward on how an action can be
performed by translating the mental image of
the goal into a visual focal point that stimulates
his/her volition.
Design direction for environmental mastery
A resulting design direction for the symbolic
meaning of environmental mastery is: “Improve
multi-sensorial communication; improving
communication mediums by translating a
message into a sensorial experience, for
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example by simulating intimate physical
behaviours.” Communication is an essential
aspect of the creation of a suitable context for
human flourishing, and this direction
incorporates motion and/or haptic elements as
a metaphor for intimate human behaviours in
order to make impersonal communication
mediums more nuanced and rich. In that sense,
a symbolic value related to the individual’s
ability to connect can be added to products.
Previous research indicated that product-
mediated contact can effectively transmit affect,
and is more effective when it considers
elements of human physicality such as touch
and intentionality (Smith & MacLean, 2007;
Lenay, 2010). An example of this is the Elfoid
P1, a hybrid cell phone-robot developed by
ATR Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory (Figure 5).
This concept is a simplified human figure that
transmits voice and motion to convey human
“presence.”
Figure 5. The Elfoid P1 by ATR Hiroshi Ishiguro
Laboratory. Source: www.geminoid.jp/projects/
CREST/elfoid.html.
Design direction for autonomy
An example of a resulting design direction for
the symbolic meaning of autonomy is: “Design
for mindfulness, slowing down processes or
disclosing the mechanisms behind how
products work to promote a mindful living”. This
design direction suggests that unveiling the way
a product operates ritualizes its use, adding
value and improving the use experience (Fuad-
Luke, 2010).
The Standard Table Lamp by Knauf and Brown
Studio does not have an on-off switch, but
rather is presented in parts that need to be put
together to function (Figure 6). The user is
required to complete the electric circuit by
placing the lamp in a low-voltage copper tower.
This approach can contribute to delaying the
anticipation of the product's function, by
increasing the effort to use it.
Figure 6. The Standard Table Lamp by Knauf and
Brown studio. Source: knaufandbrown.com.
Previous research has shown that the exercise
of delaying gratification can contribute to self-
regulation, an important aspect of subjective
well-being (Ryff, 1989; Doer & Baumeister,
2010).
Design direction for self-acceptance
For the symbolic meaning of self-acceptance,
an example of a design direction is: “Allow
shared transformation, providing tools for user
input at aesthetic and functional level, in a
permanent or temporary way.” This direction
suggests that a product can trigger happiness
by gaining symbolic meaning when it is open to
aesthetic and functional investment from the
user. The transformation of the object can lead,
to some extent, to the transformation of its user:
Someone that offers time and effort to modify
something is also affected by it, for example, by
releasing creativity. In addition, an object that is
transformed by a person retains marks of
intentionality that are as a signature. Accepting
the result of such transformation can help the
user have a positive look on the self ("I made
this and it is beautiful/unique"). One way this
design direction could be implemented is
through temporary or permanent
transformations in a purposefully incomplete
product. For example, the Meaning of Time by
Bomi Kim (Figure 7) is a clock mechanism that
invites the user to insert a tangible element in
the clock hands, involving him/her in the
aesthetics and functionality of the object.
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Research supports that unfinished products
invite exploration, resulting in enhanced
product attachment (Borjesson, 2009; Mugge et
al, 2009).
Figure 7. The Meaning of time clock by Bomi Kim.
Source: http://www.coroflot.com/bfsummer
/meaning-of-time.
Conclusions
A product’s inability to respond to the user’s
evolving aspirations (e.g., for technological or
aesthetical upgradability) can promote
premature discarding, but ultimately, the ending
of a product’s life is a consumer decision. The
challenge resides, therefore, in designing
products that support durable user-product
relationships (van Nes, 2010) by focusing on
durability of meaning and value (Chapman,
2005).
Several publications on the topic of emotional
durability have explored the role of symbolic
meaning in fostering durable user-product
relationships (e.g., Chapman, 2005; van Nes &
Cramer, 2005). While offering an important and
novel perspective on durability, these
explorations have not yet resulted in practical
directions that support designers in their
attempts to design emotionally durable
products. The current study aimed to contribute
by taking a step further in developing such
design directions as hands-on, yet also
malleable to the designer’s point of view and
interpretation. As such, the set of sixteen
design directions are intended as exploratory
rather than normative, ideally offering
inspiration by displaying a diversity of
opportunities to design with symbolic meaning.
In this manuscript, symbolic meaning is
addressed as a gateway to enrich and deepen
product experiences. Although many of the
product examples used in this study are
‘boutique productsthat are produced in small
series, our intention is to generate knowledge
that can also be useful for mass-produced
products. Ideally, the resulting design directions
can help designing higher quality interactions
with commodities, which could create
differential advantage and stimulate brand
loyalty. In the design process, these directions
can serve as a source of inspiration to generate
more relatable and personally relevant features
and interactions, embodying (or facilitating the
embodiment) of narratives (and in the effects in
product use), with longer and more meaningful
product-user relationships. For example,
designing products that afford a ‘freedom of
intervention’ allows unique interactions and
usage narrations to occur, and opens the
possibility for symbolic meaning to evolve
during usage. This can strengthen the
experience users have with a product, service,
brand, etc.
We see at least five research opportunities to
further develop and refine the present research:
1) developing and testing different formats of
delivering and facilitating the design directions
to designers; 2) exploring diverse uses of the
directions, such as in setting design goals, idea
generation, and product evaluation; 3) testing
the effects of the directions (on both user
subjective well-being and on product longevity)
with longitudinal studies using prototypes that
result from the use of the directions; 4) applying
the directions in an education context, exploring
possibilities and implications of their integration
in product or industrial design curricula; 5)
exploring the possibilities to apply the directions
to other design domains, such as service
design.
Acknowledgments
This research was supported by the FCT -
Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia
(Foundation for Science and Technology), an
organization within the Ministry of Education
and Science of Portugal (grant number
SFRH/BD/77337/2011). We would like to
acknowledge all the willing participants for their
availability and contribution.
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The manuscript addresses the ideation of superficial appearances for emerging materials, taking as reference natural subjects of the plant world. The appearance of new materials offers the opportunity to achieve renewed experiences. The objective is to design appearances for predetermined substrates in the laboratory, assessing the contributions of surface design to the users’ perceptual construct. The methodology includes aspects related to bionics, selection and analysis of natural subjects; ideation of proposals; definition of substrates; prototype manufacturing; and user studies. The conclusions are oriented towards the implication of the natural referent in user evaluations, as well as the use of digital technologies in the ideation process.
... These approaches are insufficient if they do not generate relevance for the users. Design must account, therefore, for the human perspective and human emotions, becoming thusly more significant [38]. This relevance is fundamental for better human-product/human-computer relationships that result in longer-lasting designs that people want to care for and engage with, repair, reuse, repurpose, and (eventually) discard with respect [37]. ...
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Emotions are fundamental in people’s lives. Both positive and negative emotions are important because they create complex and rich experiences. Several strategies for designing with emotions have been explored from designing for meaning, to designing for pleasure or for rich experiences. While there has been a great focus on tangible products in emotional design, our increasingly digital lives make engaging users in these contexts essential. Rich emotional experiences are relevant for digital contexts because they help create more immersive and realistic experiences. Design that considers emotions is a design that becomes more relevant, and this relevance is fundamental for better human-product/human-computer relationships that result in longer-lasting designs with which people want to engage. In this paper, we define emotion and offer a panorama on the work that has been developed in the design field surrounding this concept.
... In the design literature, association and relationship-focused identification have long been considered to add value to user experience. Accordingly, several design strategies have been proposed (e.g., Casais et al., 2015;Mugge et al., 2008). For instance, how to use symbolic meaning of a product to influence users' behaviours. ...
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This paper reveals how the patterns of positive user experience in relation to a product vary over the usage life cycle, from before purchase to disposal/repurchase, and in what way the positive experience interacts with demographic factors. As constructs of positive user experience, five attributes of positive user experience were adopted in the study: aesthetics; instrumentality; association; self-focused identification; and relationship-focused identification. Love letter, UX curve and retrospective interviews were used as methods. A total of 49 people participated in the study. The results indicate that the critical attributes of positive user experiences differed to a large extent according to the phase of product usage. However, these differences were not significant in terms of gender and age. Among the five attributes, instrumentality played a main role in positive experiences throughout the product usage life cycle, while the importance of the other attributes tended to decrease after first-time usage. The findings highlight implications for design practice that can aid the process of designing for long-lasting positive user experience throughout the product usage life cycle.
... Positive Design Framework has been complemented by studies in different areas related to the specific ingredients. Topics like positive emotions and its structure (Desmet, 2012;Yoon, Pohlmeyer & Desmet, 2016); the richness of negative emotions (Fokkinga & Desmet, 2012); dilemmas and self-control (Ozkaramanli, Özcan & Desmet, 2017); and the symbolic value of products (Casais, Mugge & Desmet, 2015) have been researched. Specifically, the mentioned research tackles the ingredients of pleasure and personal significance. ...
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Virtue is a fundamental aspect of well-being. Past research has proposed that emotional-driven design can be a powerful mediator towards supporting virtue. However, virtue-focused solutions generally target isolated actions. Here, using saving as an example of virtuous behavior we present a design cas —Billy Cash, a digital piggy bank that allows users to reflect during the saving process and extend the appreciation of the purchased item—that aims to demonstrate how design can facilitate virtuous behavior that is sustainable and can promote actual change. Through the analysis and evaluation of the design case, we propose a framework of design for virtuous behavior. The framework sets a scenario for design interventions that contemplate virtuous actions to be transformed into virtuous behaviors mediated by the resignification of resources and stimuli behind the experience.
... A final contribution of products is that they can strengthen our awareness of one's past achievements or of one's progress towards a future goal. Someone may hold on to his worn-out dancing shoes because they serve as a tangible representation of his efforts to become a ballroom dancer (Casais, Mugge & Desmet, 2015). Likewise, trophies and souvenirs can serve as reminders of our past achievements, keeping these vivid by making them touchable and perceptible (Belk, 1988). ...
Chapter
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