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Sentence Completion for Evaluating Symbolic Meaning

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Symbolic meaning refers to the image and associations that spring to mind in regard to a product. Products can act as symbols for humans, providing personal meaning and communicating the owner's personal characteristics to others. The meanings that we attach to products play an essential role in how we feel about them and evaluate them. In this paper, we investigate how symbolic meaning could be evaluated. Symbolic meaning is challenging to design since it is hard to anticipate other people's reactions and the designer and users might attach different meanings to a product. Symbolic meaning is also challenging to evaluate because of the intangible nature of the phenomenon. Practical methods are needed to evaluate designs and gather feedback on how users interpret symbolic meanings. We used a sentence completion technique to identify the symbolic meanings that users attach to a product. Using two case studies, we describe early trials of the technique. The results show that sentence completion can help designers to understand how users see their products and how symbolic meanings can be refined.
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www.ijdesign.org 15 International Journal of Design Vol.6 No.3 2012
Introduction
In design, products have long been recognized as important
carriers of meaning (Krippendorff & Butter, 1984). In addition
to offering practical functions, products often act as symbols
for people, providing personal meaning and communicating the
owner’s personal characteristics to others (Crilly, Moultrie, &
Clarkson, 2004). For example, an expensive car may symbolize
achievement; the owner feels good and important when driving
the car and other people may think that the person is successful
in his or her work. Product symbolism has also generated
considerable interest in market research and empirical studies
have shown that in certain circumstances individuals do evaluate
the symbolic meanings of products when forming overall product
preferences and attitudes (Allen, 2006). For example, in Creusen
and Schoormans’ (2005) large qualitative study of 142 users,
almost one half of the sample mentioned symbolic meaning —
mostly as associations related to appearance — as a reason for
product choice when asked to make a choice between alternative
telephone answering machines.
Allen (2002) denes symbolic meaning as being about
the image of a product, encompassing abstract ideas and
associations with a product and beliefs about the kinds of
people who use it. A person may attach almost any meaning to
any object, as human thinking is associative by nature. Still, the
object’s physical characteristics and the values attributed to it in
a culture seem to play a determining role (Csikszentmihalyi &
Rochberg-Halton, 1981, p. 87). For example, in Csikszentmihalyi
and Rochberg-Halton’s study of domestic objects, the symbolic
meaning of TVs and stereos most often related to the person’s
self, photos were specialized in preserving memories and
sculptures in embodying associations.
In this article, we investigate how symbolic meaning can
be evaluated. Symbolic meaning is challenging to design, it
being hard to anticipate other people’s reactions and designers
and users may attach different meanings to a product. A designer
always makes assumptions about users, their behavior and ways
of interpreting a product. Designers need feedback from users
to understand how users see their products and attach symbolic
meanings to them. Symbolic meaning is challenging to evaluate
because of its intangible nature. In practice, interviewing is time
demanding and only a limited number of users can participate. For
social desirability reasons, users typically do not mention status
or prestige issues in self-reports (Richins, 1994). An expensive
car can have social status or prestige value and may make other
people appreciate its owner, but practical methods are needed for
evaluating designs and gathering feedback on how users attribute
symbolic meanings to them.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Sentence Completion for Evaluating Symbolic Meaning
Sari Kujala 1,* and Piia Nurkka 2
1 Department of Design, Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland
2 Unit of Human-Centered Technology, Tampere University of Technology, Tampere, Finland
Symbolic meaning refers to the image and associations that spring to mind in regard to a product. Products can act as symbols for
humans, providing personal meaning and communicating the owner’s personal characteristics to others. The meanings that we attach to
products play an essential role in how we feel about them and evaluate them. In this paper, we investigate how symbolic meaning could
be evaluated. Symbolic meaning is challenging to design since it is hard to anticipate other people’s reactions and the designer and users
might attach different meanings to a product. Symbolic meaning is also challenging to evaluate because of the intangible nature of the
phenomenon. Practical methods are needed to evaluate designs and gather feedback on how users interpret symbolic meanings. We used a
sentence completion technique to identify the symbolic meanings that users attach to a product. Using two case studies, we describe early
trials of the technique. The results show that sentence completion can help designers to understand how users see their products and how
symbolic meanings can be rened.
Keywords – Product Symbolism, Product Meaning, Sentence Completion, Symbolic Meaning, User Experience, Intangible Product Properties.
Relevance to Design Practice – The designers can use the sentence completion technique presented here for evaluating the symbolic
meaning of designs and gathering feedback from users. By evaluating symbolic meaning, designers can learn how users interpret the
design and attach symbolic meanings to it, suggesting how the symbolic meaning of the product can be improved.
Citation: Kujala, S., & Nurkka, P. (2012). Sentence completion for evaluating symbolic meaning. International Journal of Design,6(3), 15-25.
Received Feb. 7, 2012; Accepted Aug. 16, 2012; Published Dec. 31, 2012.
Copyright: © 2012 Kujala & Nurkka. Copyright for this article is retained by
the authors, with rst publication rights granted to the International Journal of
Design. All journal content, except where otherwise noted, is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License. By virtue
of their appearance in this open-access journal, articles are free to use, with proper
attribution, in educational and other non-commercial settings.
*Corresponding Author: sari.kujala@aalto.
www.ijdesign.org 16 International Journal of Design Vol.6 No.3 2012
Sentence Completion for Evaluating Symbolic Meaning
In summary, symbolic meaning is a complex and obscure
concept to identify and measure. Different researchers use
different terms to describe the phenomenon, including meaning
(Crilly et al., 2004; Russo & Hekkert, 2007), personal meaning
(Cupchik & Hilscher, 2008), symbolic meaning (Desmet
& Hekkert, 2007), product meaning (Allen, 2002, 2006),
linking value (Cova, 1997) and symbolic qualities associated
with products (Crilly, Good, Matravers, & Clarkson, 2008).
Symbolic meaning is not a one-dimensional concept. To
evaluate it from users’ point of view, we need to understand the
factors comprising symbolic meaning and how these factors
can affect user experience. This paper reviews the literature to
clarify the factors of symbolic meaning to be evaluated. The
empirical part of the paper reports on a sentence completion
technique for evaluating symbolic meaning and the testing of
the approach in two case studies.
Symbolic Meaning as a Source of
User Experience
User experience and symbolic meaning are related concepts. This
section discusses the concept of user experience and its relation to
symbolic meaning.
Intangible Nature of User Experience
User experience refers to the user’s perceptions and responses
in regard to their interaction with a system or product (ISO
9241-110, 2010). The concept of user experience has evolved
to take into account experiential aspects of user-product
interaction, such as emotions, feelings and meanings. However,
user experience is a vague and multidimensional concept, lacking
common agreement on its full nature and scope (Law, Roto,
Hassenzahi, Vermeerem, & Kort, 2009).
McCarthy and Wright (2004) describe user experience as a
subjective, constructive, holistic, and spatio-temporal phenomenon.
According to Hassenzahl and Tractinsky’s (2006) model, user
experience is a consequence of the user’s internal state, the
characteristics of the designed system and the context in which the
interaction occurs. They see user experience as holistic, subjective,
situated and emotional. The user experience is commonly seen
as evolving in the interaction between the user and the product
(Russo & Hekkert, 2007; Russo, Boess, & Hekkert, 2011), not as
arising solely from a product’s properties.
In sum, user experience is intangible and clearly represents
something more than the instrumental and utilitarian aspects of
the product.
Symbolic Meaning as a Dimension of
User Experience
The symbolic meanings and associations with a products, although
intangible and dependent on personal interpretation, seem to
be an integral part of how users experience a product. Various
researchers agree that symbolic meaning is a dimension of user
experience. For example, Desmet and Heckert (2007) identify
three levels of product experience: aesthetic pleasure, attribution
of meaning and emotional response. They do not give an exact
denition of attribution of meaning, but state that it happens
through cognitive processes such as interpretation, memory
retrieval and associations. They state that meaning is related to the
personal or symbolic signicance of products or the possibility
of assigning them personality or other expressive characteristics.
They give an example of a Chinese teacup that one of the
authors is attached to because it represents his visit to China. In a
similar vein, Vyas and van der Veer (2006a) conceptualize users’
experience as the meaning or interpretations they construct during
the interaction with a product.
Hassenzahl (2003) does not explicitly mention symbolic
meaning as a component of user experience, but he does describe
aspects that are closely related. He categorizes the hedonic aspect
of user experience as including stimulation (i.e. personal
growth, an increase or knowledge and skills), identication (i.e.
self-expression, interaction with relevant others) and evocation
(i.e. self-maintenance, memories). Similarly, Mahlke and Thüring
(2007) distinguish identication as a part of user experience.
Identication and other hedonic aspects can be seen as part of
symbolic meanings as discussed below.
Assessing Meaningful Experience
Factors of the Symbolic Meaning to Be Evaluated
Symbolic meaning is not a one-dimensional concept. To evaluate
it from users point of view, we need to understand its components
and how they can affect user experience.
In the industrial design literature, symbolic meaning is
often interpreted as being related to a product’s form, appearance
and use. For example, Krippendorff and Butter (1984) and later
Krippendorff (2006) describe the history of product semantics and
dene it as “the study of the symbolic qualities of man-made forms
in the context of their use and the application of this knowledge
to industrial design” (p. 4). They relate product semantics to a
concern for the cognitive meanings, symbolic functions and
cultural histories of form.
Van Rompay (2008) provides an overview of studies
accounting for the relationships between a product’s formal
features and symbolic meaning. He gives the example that the
rounded form of an object is generally perceived as being secure
Sari Kujala is a Postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University, Department of
Design, and an Adjunct Professor at Tampere University of Technology. Her
background is in psychology and cognitive science. She received her Ph.D.
in human-computer interaction. Her research interests focus on user-centered
design, user involvement, value-centered design, cross-cultural design and
user experience.
Piia Nurkka is a PhD student at Tampere University of Technology in the
Unit of Human-Centered Technology. Her background is in design with a
master’s degree in industrial design from the University of Art and Design
Helsinki (now Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture).
Her PhD research investigates user experience, especially in relation to
sports related products and services with an aim to understand what makes
such products and services desirable and meaningful for users.
www.ijdesign.org 17 International Journal of Design Vol.6 No.3 2012
S. Kujala and P. Nurkka
or emotional. Van Rompay’s conclusion is that meaning is not a
xed property of the world or mind, but results from interactions
between individual and environment. One of his studies shows
that forms connote different symbolic meanings across cultures.
For example, increasing degrees on containment (container form)
resulted in higher ratings on secure in the Netherlands, but not in
Brazil. Crilly et al. (2004) also discuss symbolic associations and
the social value of products. Mugge (2011) suggests that product
appearance creates product personality, which people use as a cue
for evaluating products.
Desmet and Hekkert (2007) consider meaning to be
non-physical human-product interaction related to fantasizing
about, remembering or anticipating use. People use interpretation,
memory retrieval and associations in attaching meaning to
products and assessing their personal or symbolic signicance.
Desmet and Hekkert give luxury and attachment as examples of
meaning. The experience of luxury represents the symbolic value
of a comfortable lifestyle associated with particular consumer
products. The experience of attachment is represented by
products that have some profound and sustained meaning for
users (Mugge, Schoormans, & Schifferstein, 2008; Schifferstein
& Zwartkruis-Pelgrim, 2008).
Product meaning is a well-established concept in consumer
research and there is literature exploring the factors of symbolic
meaning. Allen (2002, 2006) provides a good review of the
related literature. As early as 1923, Ogden and Richards dened
product meaning as the relationship between mind, object and
world. According to Allen (2006), there have been various
explanations of product meaning, but it is generally seen as
subjective, suffused with affectivity and usually either utilitarian
or symbolic. Our particular interest is in symbolic meaning that
is represented by intangible attributes. Allen states that a group
of individuals has a tendency to make similar inferences about a
product, suggesting that symbolic meaning is culturally shared.
Symbols are formed by cultural principles, which can be norms,
values or social categories. For example, an American ag may
symbolize freedom or conservative American.
Allen (2002) denes product meaning as the image of the
product, encompassing abstract ideas and associations with the
product, as well as beliefs about the kinds of people who use the
product. The psychological and sociological literature argues that
individuals pay attention to object symbolism mainly because
they want to express, maintain or enhance their self-concept, that
is, their identity and ideal image of themself. The literature gives
examples of how symbolic meaning has been used to compensate
for low self-esteem and lack of experience in playing a particular
social role (Allen, 2002).
Zimmerman (2009) reviews the consumer research
literature and concludes that people use products as self-extension
and that an essential part of identity construction is a development
of a coherent life story, this being an integration of different
stories that unite events from someone’s past, experiences for the
present and imaginings of the future. Mugge et al. (2008) review
the literature showing that people tend to develop a stronger
attachment to products where they use them to express and
maintain a unique personal identity. In addition to identity, Allen
(2002, 2006) shows by his survey studies that to some extent users
form product preferences by evaluating whether their values are
represented in product meanings. For example, users’ preference
for achievement value was associated with a preference for larger
family cars (Allen, 2002).
Cova (1997) analyses humans and consumption behavior
from an ethnosociological point of view. In ethnosociology, a new
tribalism is seen as characterizing postmodernity. Cova argues
that to satisfy their desire for community, modern individuals
seek products and services less for their use value than for their
linking value. Linking value arises when a product facilitates and
supports communion by providing a site, an emblem, the support
for integration or recognition, and so forth. Cova states that “the
postmodern individual can build an identity for themself with
cultural symbols and references (plays, exhibitions, lms, and
books), humanitarian references (the French Doctors, Bosnia, and
Somalia), but also sporting references (the complete outt of the
OM supporter), and, in fact, all possible references” (p. 305).
Linking value can be interpreted as one kind of meaning.
It refers to product properties that cause users to experience
a feeling of communion. The same idea is presented in the
consumer research literature. For example, Belk (1988) argues
that identity is important not only on an individual level, but
also on a collective level involving family group, subcultural and
national identities.
In summary, the literature of industrial design suggests
that symbolic meaning can arise through memory retrieval and
associations (Desmet & Hekkert, 2007) and seems to be one
of the determinants of product attachment (Mugge et al., 2008;
Schifferstein & Zwartkruis-Pelgrim, 2008). Consumer behavior
research shows that symbolic meaning is important to users
mainly because they want to maintain, enhance and express
their identity and ideal image of themselves. It has been shown
that symbolic meaning arises when products support user values
(Allen, 2006). The sociological literature suggests that the goal
can also be a feeling of communion (Cova, 1997).
The different denitions and elds of research provide
complementary views of the concept of symbolic meaning.
Symbolic meaning is something intangible and subjective,
but also culturally shared. Figure 1 summarizes the identied
factors of symbolic meaning and the relationship of symbolic
meaning to product experience as presented by Desmet and
Hekkert (2007). The identied factors overlap, but they describe
the nature of phenomenon.
Assessing Symbolic Meaning in Practice
Gathering feedback from users and evaluating the symbolic
meaning of a product is not straightforward in practice because of
the intangible nature of the phenomenon.
www.ijdesign.org 18 International Journal of Design Vol.6 No.3 2012
Sentence Completion for Evaluating Symbolic Meaning
Interviews related to possessions
Cupchik and Hilscher (2008) interviewed eight professional
designers and eight graduate students to understand why they
found design objects “meaningfully and emotionally connected”
(p. 248). On the basis of qualitative analysis and factor analysis,
they identied four factors. First, people can feel a personalized
connection to products as if they have a social relationship with
them. Second, products can be idealized for their uniqueness
or the prestige of their designer. Third, products can provide an
occasion for meaningful self-exploration and the expression of a
personal identity. Fourth, products can provide meaning through
metaphors and symbolism.
Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) asked people
to identify those objects in their home that were special to them
and give reasons for this. The reasons were then assigned to
meaning categories. The most frequently mentioned meaning
categories related to self, immediate family and experiences.
Then, memories, association, intrinsic qualities, style, personal
values and utilitarian reasons were mentioned. Links to other
people such as friends and heroes were also mentioned. Vyas and
van der Veer (2006b) used an Explication Interview to get users
to talk about their feelings, emotions, values and meanings related
to a TV system. However, they asked users to describe their usage
and expectations only in very general terms.
Survey and other methods
Richins (1994) used survey to identify the private meanings of
valued possessions, followed by a card sorting method to identify
the public meaning of the objects mentioned in the survey. The
survey included open questions. For example, the respondents
were asked to think about a possession they owned that was
important to them, to describe the possession and to explain why
it was important to them. Two coders analyzed the content of the
subjects’ responses and categorized the results guided by earlier
studies. Richins then asked other participants to sort cards that
included the possessions mentioned in the surveys, telling them
that other people had mentioned these possessions as being
particularly important to them. The participants were asked to sort
them into piles of objects that might be valued for similar reasons.
Richins’ (1994) ndings reveal some differences between
public and private meanings. Status or prestige was present in
public meanings, but was not represented in the content analysis of
private meanings. When the respondents evaluated their personal
meanings they mentioned the item’s appearance or nancial worth
instead of status or prestige. Richins suggests that the respondents
declined to disclose meanings connected to status or prestige for
social desirability reasons. On the other hand, public meanings
did not distinguish between symbolic meaning associated with
interpersonal relationships and symbolic meaning associated with
personal identity. The public meanings tended to be less nuanced
than private meanings.
Jindo and Hirasago (1997) used a semantic differentiation
method in Kansei engineering in a survey in which the participants
were asked to evaluate very detailed design element variations
such as fonts. The results focus on detailed product properties,
but do not reveal how users interpret symbolic meaning or how
they see the whole image of the product or how well the product
supports their identity.
In summary, interview is the most frequent method for
identifying symbolic meaning. In the reviewed studies, users
were usually asked to discuss an object that is important to them,
but when a product is evaluated for design purposes, it may not
be special for the respondent. Symbolic meaning is a difcult
concept to grasp. The interviews reported in the literature are
very open, making analysis demanding and limiting the number
of users who can be studied. A more specic method is needed to
identify the varied factors of symbolic meaning.
Product exprienc e
Aesthetic pleasure
Emotional repons e
Symbolic meanin g
Memory retrieval
and associations
Support for identity,
self-expressio n
or status
Beliefs about the
kinds of people who
use the produc t
Support for user
values and social
relatedness
Figure 1. Factors comprising symbolic meaning as a part of user experience.
www.ijdesign.org 19 International Journal of Design Vol.6 No.3 2012
S. Kujala and P. Nurkka
Sentence Completion Technique
To respond to the challenges of evaluating symbolic meaning,
we applied a sentence completion technique that is a popular
projective psychological technique in consumer research (Hoyer
& MacInnis, 2007). Sentence completion combines a projective
technique and questionnaire whereby respondents are provided
with the beginnings of sentences that they complete in ways that
are meaningful to them (Soley & Smith, 2008, p. 132). Soley and
Smith (2008) attribute the popularity of sentence completion tests
to their advantages over other projective techniques. The tests are
easily administered, are amenable to group administration, can be
qualitatively or quantitatively analyzed and can be used to assess
motivations or attitudes. Sentence completion has previously been
used to identify user values for product development purposes
(Kujala & Nurkka, 2009; Nurkka, Kujala, & Kemppainen, 2009).
The strength of the technique is that respondents use
their own words to describe their situation, thus giving more
spontaneous and honest answers compared to traditional
questionnaires (Hoyer & MacInnis, 2007). The technique can
uncover conicted attitudes and values that are difcult to uncover
with other types of measures (Soley & Smith, 2008), suggesting
the approach is particularly well suited to evaluating symbolic
meaning that may be partly subconscious.
Cases: Evaluating Symbolic Meaning
Evaluating symbolic meaning with a sentence completion
technique was tested in two case studies to establish its suitability
for identifying how users interpret the meaning of existing
products. We created sentence stems (beginning of sentences) to
represent the symbolic meaning factors identied in the literature.
We aimed to develop sentence stems that were uent to complete
and open enough to not lead respondents to answer according
to any preconceived expectations. The stimulus material was
rst developed for Case 1 as shown in Table 1, with most of the
sentences then applied in Case 2.
Case 1
The rst case study was performed for Polar Electro, a global
company producing various tness and sports products. The study
aimed to evaluate the user experience and symbolic meaning of an
existing product, the RS200 heart rate monitor, to establish ideas
for improving it.
Participants
An invitation to participate in the study was emailed to 99
owners of the RS200 heart rate monitor randomly selected from
a customer database. The users were given one week to respond
to the online questionnaire. Those who lled in the questionnaire
were told they would be entered into a lottery with a Polar product
as the prize. 36 users lled in the questionnaire. Their average age
was 38.7 years and 16 (44%) were women.
Questionnaire
The questionnaire consisted of four background information
questions and 50 sentence completion tasks (Appendix 1). The
sentence completion tasks aimed to gather users’ general views
about exercising and some specic feedback about the RS200
heart rate monitor. Only 15 of the sentences were particularly
aimed to measure different factors of symbolic meaning (Table 1).
The rst sentence stems were particularly open in seeking
to probe information about users and user values. The sentences
related to users’ dreams and best experiences sought to understand
what kind of experiences users enjoy and consider valuable. The
sentences related to the feelings the product arouses aimed to
gather feedback how the product supports users’ emotional values.
The remaining sentences mostly probed other factors of symbolic
meaning such as associations with the product, its appearance and
support for identity or status. A common technique employed in
market research when measuring the image of a product is to ask
participants to describe the characteristics of the typical product
user (Allen, Gupta, & Monnier, 2008). This technique was applied
in one sentence to elicit beliefs about the kinds of people using
Table 1. Sentence stems related to symbolic meaning and their rationale.
The sentence stem Factors of symbolic meaning aimed to be measured
In relation to sports, I dream…
The best of my training experiences was…
The feeling the RS200 arouses…
When I use the RS200, I feel myself…
User values (hedonic and emotional values) (Allen, 2002, 2006).
User values (hedonic and emotional values) (Allen, 2002, 2006).
User values (hedonic and emotional values) (Allen, 2002, 2006).
User values (hedonic and emotional values) (Allen, 2002, 2006), support for identity or status (Boztepe, 2007).
The RS200 brings to my mind…
To me the RS200 means…
Compared to other products, the RS200 is…
The appearance of the RS200 is…
The style of the RS200…
Associations with the product (Allen, 2002).
Associations with the product (Allen, 2002).
The image of the product (Allen, 2002).
Associations with the product’s appearance (Rompay, 2008).
The image of the product (Allen, 2002).
The RS200 ts best…
The RS200 does not t…
The image that the RS200 gives of its user…
Associations with the product (Allen, 2002).
Associations with the product (Allen, 2002).
Support for identity or status (Boztepe, 2007).
The typical owner of an RS200 is… Beliefs about the kinds of people using the product (Allen, 2002; Allen et al. (2008).
The RS200 makes me… Support for identity or status (Boztepe, 2007).
When I use the RS200, other people think… Support for identity or status (Boztepe, 2007), support for user values e.g. relatedness (Allen, 2002, 2006).
www.ijdesign.org 20 International Journal of Design Vol.6 No.3 2012
Sentence Completion for Evaluating Symbolic Meaning
the product (Allen, 2006). The responses reveal how users see
the product communicating status value and the owner’s personal
characteristics. Status may not be mentioned in self-reports,
but as Richins (1994) shows, respondents nd it easier to make
statements about status when they are thinking of people other
than themselves.
The respondents were instructed that there were no wrong
answers and that they should complete the sentences rather
quickly, on the basis of what rst came into their mind.
Results
The respondents completed an average of 11.4 sentences (76%)
out of the 15 sentences related to symbolic meaning. Overall,
409 sentences were completed and 131 sentences were left
empty. The number of the responses required seemed to tire
the respondents. Only 38 sentences were left empty for the rst
half of the sentences and 93 were left empty for the last half
of the sentences, showing the gradual fatigue. 167 (41%) of the
responses were of one word only and all respondents provided
some longer replies.
The participants’ responses were rst put into a table to
present all answers given by a single respondent and compare
answers from different respondents. The respondents used
varied wordings, but their meanings were mostly very similar.
The frequency of similar replies was then counted to provide the
percentages of users reporting the same meaning. To keep the
content of results close to the original replies of the users, the
exact wordings of the responses were used. The most frequent
response was used as a title of the category. If there was a
slight difference between the wordings, for example, “active”
and “active exerciser”, both of the words were included in the
title of the category.
Table 2 shows that respondents mostly associated a typical
user of the RS200 with being an active exerciser, enthusiastic
and sporty. 55% of the responses include one or the other of
these words and many other answers were related to this view.
One answer described the typical user as being interested in
technology. This probably suggested that the product is rather
technology-oriented, which might be a negative association for
certain users. One female respondent answered that the typical
user is a man and later described the product as not very feminine.
The sentence “To me the RS200 means…” produced less
homogeneous responses. Most often the participants described
utilitarian meanings. They responded that the product means
better, healthier or more systematic training (11 responses). Some
of the responses were very positive, the product being seen as very
personalized (Cupchik & Hilscher, 2008). Although the product
is only a measuring device, it was seen as a partner, motivator,
coach and supporter (5 responses). Other users saw the product
as just a tool (8 responses). Both positive and negative attributes
were connected with the product when the users responded to the
questions “The RS200 brings to my mind…” and “The RS200
does not t…”. Two respondents considered the product to be
easy to use or clear. Four respondents indicated in varied wordings
that it was difcult to use. One woman mentioned the product’s
unsuitability for small people, which may be the reason why it
did not feel feminine. Figure 2 summarises the responses to these
three questions according to meanings.
In addition to these two example gures, we received
information on user goals, values, feelings and dreams as well
as feedback on the quality, style and appearance of the product.
Table 2. Users’ view of the characteristics of the typical user
of the RS200 heart rate monitor.
Response Number of
responses
Active/Active exerciser/Active runner 10
Exerciser/Enthusiastic 4
Sporty 2
Runner 2
30 years/25-30 years 2
Amateur/Ordinary 2
Like me 1
Satised with the product 1
Relaxed exerciser and high-spirited 1
Novice runner 1
Interested in technology 1
Man 1
Middle aged, looking for self and experiences 1
Figure 2. The meaning of RS200 heart rate monitor to users.
www.ijdesign.org 21 International Journal of Design Vol.6 No.3 2012
S. Kujala and P. Nurkka
Case 2
The second case study sought to test how sentence completion
identies differences in how two different user groups perceive
symbolic meaning. Positive symbolic meaning in regard to a
product is assumed to lead to emotional bonding with the product.
This suggests that a good evaluation method should also be able to
identify differences between two user groups that have different
bonding with a product. In this study, the collectors of plastic
dishes were compared to a control group of non-collectors.
Participants
Two groups of ve women participated in the study. The rst
ve women all collected the “Katrilli” tableware series designed
by Tauno Tarna and produced between 1969-1985 by Sarvis,
Finland’s rst plastics company. The collectors seemed to have a
strong emotional bonding to the old plastic dishes as they collected
dishes that other people had given away and sold in ea markets.
The collectors had blogs where they presented their collections
and told about their love for the products. All the collectors were
women with children and their ages ranged from 29 to 43 years
(M = 34.4). A second group of ve women was the control group.
Their ages ranged from 32 to 43 years (M = 38.2). They did not
collect the plastic dishes, but they did have children and were the
same ages as the collectors.
Procedure and questionnaire
The participants were met at their homes or ofce. They were
asked to ll in a sentence completion questionnaire, then they
were interviewed. One collector was interviewed over the phone.
The questionnaire consisted of 14 sentences (Appendix 2). Twelve
of the sentences were the same as in the rst case study, but were
reworded to t the product type. Two sports-related questions and
one overlapping feeling question were left out. Two questions were
added related to the plastic material and look of the dishes. Half of
the sentences were exactly same for both groups of respondants.
The other half were slightly tweaked so the collectors would refer
to their own plastic dishes where the sentences for the control
group referred to plastic dishes in general.
Results
The respondents completed 134 sentences. Six sentences were left
empty (4%) and in ve sentences the respondents just wrote “I
don’t know”. The control group left only three different sentences
empty, but four collectors had difculties in responding to the
sentences “Plastic dishes do not t…” (3 missing), “Plastic dishes
make me…” (2 missing) and “The gure that plastic dishes give
their owner…” (2 missing).
Out of the 129 completed sentences, 36% had just single
word replies. For example, one of the collectors replied “colorful”
to “Plastic dishes look…”. One person from the control group
replied “Plastic dishes look… commonplace”. Most of the time, the
respondents gave several words in their responses. For example,
one of the collectors replied, “The image that plastic dishes give
of their owner… glad, ecological, playful” or sentences like one
person from the control group, “The gure that plastic dishes give
their owner… want to get easy, careless, easy”.
As we wanted to see the difference between the two groups
and the frequencies of their responses, all the key words of all
responses were transferred to tag clouds by the www.wordle.net
service (Figure 3 and 4). Only conjunctions such as “and” were
left out of the tag clouds.
Figure 3. A tag cloud of the collectors’ replies.
Figure 4. A tag cloud of the control group’s replies.
www.ijdesign.org 22 International Journal of Design Vol.6 No.3 2012
Sentence Completion for Evaluating Symbolic Meaning
The responses of the two user groups show some similarities.
For example, both saw plastic dishes as glad and colorful.
However, the differences were more striking, demonstrating that
sentence completion can identify differences between user groups.
The collectors’ strongest association was their own childhood,
while the control group’s association was suitability for children’s
use and practicality. The collectors considered the plastic dishes
as pleasant and many-sided, whereas the control group considered
them commonplace and cheap.
The results provided some design inspirations. For example,
the control group had negative associations with the plastic
material and its chemicals, but the group appreciated the
practicality and colorfulness of plastic dishes. This prompted an
idea that plastic could be combined with glass or porcelain. Plastic
could be used for the cover of a glass or porcelain dish so it would
not touch the food.
Conclusions
In this study, a sentence completion technique used in psychology
and marketing was applied and further developed for evaluating
symbolic meaning. Sentence completion was tested in two case
studies. The stimulus sentences used were developed to probe
information about the varied factors comprising symbolic
meaning that were identied in the literature review. In addition, a
special effort was made to reveal the status and prestige issues that
are usually not disclosed for social acceptance reasons.
The two case studies provide preliminary evidence that the
sentence completion technique can provide useful information
on how users interpret the symbolic meaning of products. The
experience of evaluating product meaning shows that users
seem to have a consistent and shared view of meaning, although
individual users may have personal meanings that are not
commonly shared. Users are different, which is why in Case 1
some may have considered ease-of-use feelings and others very
different feelings.
The results of the sentence completion technique are
qualitative by nature, but can help designers understand how users
see their products and how the symbolic meaning of a product
can be rened. This feedback can be used in design by supporting
the positive meanings and correcting features that create negative
reactions. For example, in the rst case study, users considered the
heart rate monitor to be a coach, motivator and partner, suggesting
that new ways to make the heart rate monitor provide even more
advice, encouragement and social support could be considered.
On the other hand, a few users saw the monitor as resembling a
computer and being difcult to use, so one of the design goals
could be developing the monitor to look more human-oriented.
In addition, one user felt that the product did not t small people
and did not feel feminine. It is challenging to support both male
and female identity with one product, but users could be provided
means for personalizing a product to better support their identity
or the company could provide several heart rate models so that
users could select the one that is most suitable to them.
The second case study showed that sentence completion can
identify differences between user groups. The collectors of plastic
dishes expressed far more positive associations than the control
group, showing that positive emotional bonding to the products
was related to positive symbolic meanings. Sentence completion
provided information on how the views of the two different groups
differed. The collectors’ positive views were related to childhood
experiences. The control group appreciated the practicality of the
plastic dishes, but considered them commonplace, not suitable
for festival use and possibly containing chemicals. The memories
related to childhood are difcult to support by design if all users
do not have them. However, the responses of the control group
reveal that the symbolic meaning of plastic dishes has negative
connotations that need to be considered when designing new
plastic dishes. In addition, the results may give inspirations to
design. For example, different materials could be combined to
combine their strengths. Practical plastic could be used in lids
for dishes made of porcelain or glass. Some users are afraid of
chemicals in plastic, but the lids of dishes are rarely in direct
contact with food.
The strength of the sentence completion technique is that
it helps users to describe their associations in their own words
in a structured way. Although interviews can provide rich and
high-quality data, in practice they are time-demanding to perform
and only a limited number of users can participate. The sentence
completion technique allows a representative set of users to be
easily reached online. The analysis of sentence completion data
is easier than interview data as the responses are in a written and
structured form. However, the results are qualitative in nature
and analyzing them is not so straightforward as when using
quantitative data. As Case 2 shows, tag clouds can be used for
counting the frequencies of different responses and visualizing
the results. Respondents may use many different wordings and
synonyms that need to be gone through, but tag clouds can
provide the rst quick expression of the results when the number
of respondents is high or in industry contexts where there are not
enough resources available for thorough analysis. Currently, there
are few easy methods for analyzing qualitative data. In the future,
automatic semantic analysis may enable the analysis of large
amounts of data.
Acknowledgments
The authors would like to thank Haian Xue for good cooperation
in Case 2 and assistant professor Oscar Person and anonymous
reviewers for their valuable comments and insights. Tekes,
the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation,
supported the research. We gratefully acknowledge this assistance
and the support of the VALU steering group.
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Appendix
Appendix 1. Sentence completion stimulus
material used in Case 1
Please, complete the sentences below so that they describe you and
your thoughts. There is no wrong replies, respond rather quickly
without thinking too long. You can leave a sentence without an
answer if you feel that it is not suitable for your situation.
It is important in exercising that ______________________
As an athlete I am _________________________________
I like sports because _______________________________
In relation to sports, I dream _______________________
I receive positive attention in exercising if _____________
Exercising helps me ______________________________
It is best in exercising that _________________________
Exercising makes me feel myself _____________________
The best of my training experiences was ______________
Exercising is especially successful, if ________________
I would get more of exercising, if ___________________
Exercising is not nice if __________________________
The worst that can happen in exercising ______________
I admire in exercisers _____________________________
When I am exercising, the problem is _________________
When I am exercising, the goal is ____________________
I am encouraged to exercise by ______________________
I exercise most ____________________________________
I use RS200, because _______________________________
Using RS200 is ___________________________________
The best in RS200 is _______________________________
The most important functions of RS200 are _____________
Starting to use RS200 was ___________________________
When I give up RS200 ______________________________
I want that by RS200 _______________________________
I would like to know about R200 _____________________
To me the RS200 means ____________________________
When I use RS200, my goal is _______________________
It is irritating that the RS200 _________________________
Using RS200 while I am running _____________________
The dream heart rate monitor ________________________
Wearing a heart rate monitor while not training signals ____
Using RS200 is embarrassing if ______________________
Compered to other products, the RS200 is _____________
The RS200 brings to my mind ______________________
The appearance of the RS200 is ______________________
I hope that RS200 _________________________________
The typical owner of an RS200 is _____________________
The RS200 ts best ________________________________
The RS200 does not t _____________________________
The image that the RS200 gives of its user ______________
The style of the RS200 _____________________________
The feeling the RS200 arouses _______________________
When I use the RS200, I feel myself ___________________
When I use the RS200, other people think ______________
The problem in RS200 is ___________________________
The RS200 makes me _____________________________
In the course of time, the RS200 begins ________________
Data transfer of the RS200 is ________________________
The accessories of the RS200 ________________________
Appendix 2. Sentence completion template
used in Case 2
Please, complete the sentences below so that they describe you.
There is no wrong replies, respond rather quickly without
thinking too long.
You can leave a sentence without an answer if you feel that
it is not suitable for your situation.
Plastic as a material is _____________________________
Plastic dishes look ________________________________
Compared to other dishes, plastic dishes are ____________
Plastic dishes t best _______________________________
Plastic dishes do not t _____________________________
To me the plastic dishes mean _______________________
If I use plastic dishes, I feel myself ___________________
If I use my plastic dishes, other people think ____________
My plastic dishes make me __________________________
My plastic dishes bring to my min ____________________
The appearance of plastic dishes _____________________
The typical owner of retro-plastic dishes is ____________
The image that plastic dishes give of their owner _________
The style of the retro plastic dishes ____________________
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