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issue: May 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
The Mess Between Emotion and Function

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by Martha Cotton, Associate Partner, gravitytank

You don’t have to be a trained psychologist to know that human emotions are messy. Sometimes emotions drive people to do things that are difficult or downright impossible to explain. And why should a design firm even be trying to unlock the puzzle to human emotions anyway? Traditional (and in my opinion, woefully outdated) design sought to place the burden of emotion on the designer’s shoulders. They are experts at making things that by their very design—be it via supreme usability, needed functionality, or aesthetic appeal—generate the appropriate emotion and drive purchase. But in this increasingly competitive world, design is not enough.

This is why I sometimes feel that I am as much an armchair therapist to consumers as I am a researcher who designs products they buy and use. Why do consumers buy one product over another? Why is it easier to incorporate certain products into routines than others? Why do people forgive “bad” design because they decide to love the product anyway?

What we know is that industry typically segregates their business to serve certain functions and run effectively. Let’s take liquid hand soap: You have the product—essentially the goop in the bottle with its various functions and sensory properties; you have packaging—let’s say it is a bottle intended for bathroom display; you haveĀ  a brand—made evident via imagery and messaging on the bottle. Then, of course, you have communications and marketing—messages making their circuitous route to the consumer’s consciousness directly and indirectly. And in response to the need to research, create, and build this little bottle of liquid hand soap, industry creates highly talented teams to address each of these functions. You might have an innovation team that works on the goop in the bottle, and you might have an innovation team that works on the packaging. And you might have one team thinking about both at the same time. You have brand managers, marketers, and advertising agencies. You have lawyers and analysts thinking about what you can legally say and how much you can charge. Many teams are working together or separately for a common goal: manufacture and market something people will want to buy a lot of.

And here is the mess: Consumer experiences of a single product are not siloed. When they say “product,” they mean everything—product, package, and brand all converging into a single experience. All at once. Brand, goop, bottle, ads, your sister’s advice about how too many antibacterial soaps are actually harmful—it’s all in there, folks.

But There Is Help

There are ways of prying apart how consumers connect to products, and the key is to look at how emotional connections inform the experience of the product’s functionality. Emotional connections make the product meaningful.

Let’s go back to the liquid hand soap example. When making a purchase decision, consumers don’t question its efficacy or even whether it will smell nice. They expect it. What we hear from consumers is even though this product category represents a rather mundane human need, there is still a need for surprise. One consumer we talked to on behalf of a client waxed quite rhapsodical about her love for the foaming liquid hand soap she recently purchased: “Even though it is just hand soap, I still feel like a treat every now and again.” The foam is a little surprise she receives when washing her hands and gives her a momentary treat during a mundane routine. The product’s functionality makes it foam, but the emotional connection to that foaming action gives the functionality meaning. And you can extend the emotional connection to the way the product is packaged and messaged, all in support of making the mundane special.

At the end of the day, industry needs to recognize the role emotion plays in the consumer’s experience of the product itself (and here I mean the consumer definition, where product, package, and brand converge). If this kind of discovery is rolled into traditional R&D and product innovation efforts, companies will be far better positioned to differentiate in what is an increasingly crowded marketplace.

About the Author

Martha Cotton is Associate Partner, gravitytank (Chicago, IL, U.S.; www.gravitytank.com). To contact Cotton, please e-mail lisa.bonnema@cancom.com.


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