Why Some Products &Quot;Just Feel Right&Quot;, Or, the Phenomenology of Product Rightness

Jeffrey F. Durgee, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Gina Colarelli O'Connor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
ABSTRACT - The purpose of this paper is to explore the possibility that there is a set of products which have a special feeling of rightness to consumers. In one-on-one, nondirective interviews (only question: "What items feel right to you?"), 24 respondents describe 40 everyday products. It appears that product "rightness" is associated with high functional value, versatility, prototypic life experiences, self-expressiveness, instant satisfaction, and surprisingly many flaws. Elements not closely associated with rightness include price and brand name.
[ to cite ]:
Jeffrey F. Durgee and Gina Colarelli O'Connor (1995) ,"Why Some Products &Quot;Just Feel Right&Quot;, Or, the Phenomenology of Product Rightness", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 650-652.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 650-652

WHY SOME PRODUCTS "JUST FEEL RIGHT", OR, THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF PRODUCT RIGHTNESS

Jeffrey F. Durgee, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Gina Colarelli O'Connor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

ABSTRACT -

The purpose of this paper is to explore the possibility that there is a set of products which have a special feeling of rightness to consumers. In one-on-one, nondirective interviews (only question: "What items feel right to you?"), 24 respondents describe 40 everyday products. It appears that product "rightness" is associated with high functional value, versatility, prototypic life experiences, self-expressiveness, instant satisfaction, and surprisingly many flaws. Elements not closely associated with rightness include price and brand name.

INTRODUCTION

In their efforts to understand the person-product relationship, researchers, product planners and designers have taken many different approaches. Some seek to understand how product attributes are matched point for point with buyer wants (Hauser and Clausing 1998). Some seek product designs which will satisfy (Griffin 1993), delight or surprise buyers. Others focus on identifying buyer problems (Crawford 1991).

We propose a new approach. Specifically, we make the assumption that out of the thousands of products on the market, there is a subset which are perceived as having a special quality or feeling of rightness to consumers. Among certain individual consumers, these products strike a responsive chord. Whether for functional reasons, aesthetic reasons or both, they inspire special feelings of appropriateness and personal connectedness. They range from small items such as Soft Scrub cleanser to Mercedes automobiles and banquet halls.

This report summarizes initial, topline findings from an exploratory study of "right" items. While we eventually hope to interview over 100 people, this report summarizes results from 24 interviews. Our goal here is to raise issues and explore directions for subsequent research.

PRODUCT RIGHTNESS

Advertisers have been claiming that their products are more right than others for some time. Ads claim that "It just feels right" (Mazda) and "It's the right beer now" (Coors Light). But what does rightness mean? We suggest that certain products are felt by certain individuals to be right insofar as they have a personal, intriguing, aesthetic quality. Consumers feel warm about them and are in awe of the designer's ingenuity. The goal of all products is to enhance life, and these products seem to have a small, special advantage in this regard. The designer Milton Glazer says that good art makes people feel better about life in general. Products that are felt to be right might also have this capability. When a product design truly touches people and makes them feel this good, this is the designer's highest calling. As Read (1931) suggests, in early civilizations, art and tools were fused together. An earthen pot was art as well as being a pot. We suggest that certain products today might have this quality of total functional and aesthetic rightness.

While designers are aware of the importance of rightness, their focus is on internal rightness or integration within the product design. New design approaches (Clark and Fujimoto 1990) call for close integration of all aspects of the product including function, form and all subcomponents. Apparently, the success of the Honda Accord was due to the fact that everything in this car was designed around a common theme: "man maximum-machine minimum." We are interested in internal design issues although we are also interested in the larger gestalt including design rightness in the total life context of the individual.

Note that right products do not necessarily refer to:

! high sales volume products (Cleary 1981)

! products on lists of industrial design competition winners

! hobby or enthusiast products

! heirlooms, gifts (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981)

! products which critics judge to be archetypal examples of their category (Cornfield and Edwards 1983)

! products which people label "my favorite things" (Wallendorf and Arnold 1988)

! firsts to market in their categories

Rather, products which are felt to be right might actually be low volume products, design competition losers, everyday (nonhobby) products, purchased items, second (or later) to market, and not particularly cherished items. They just happen to feel right to certain individuals.

METHOD

Twenty-four respondents were randomly selected and individually interviewed for 20 minutes to an hour. Respondents were half male, half female and included people ages 23 to 67. Throughout the interviewing, the approach was phenomenological (Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1989). The goal in each interview was simply a first person account of some product which is felt to be right. The respondents determined the directions and contents of the interview. Respondents were simply asked to give long, detailed answers to this question:

Of all the products and things in your life, which one or two products feel the most right or give you the greatest feeling of rightness?

RESULTS

Interestingly, most of the people answered very quickly and gave long, detailed answers. The low response latency suggests that right products actually exist, that is, that respondents did not invent answers to please the interviewers. While people obviously do not spend much time each day thinking about products such as cleanser and teflon pans, they nevertheless carry with them enough of a sense of appreciation of these items and the roles they play in their daily lives that they are ready and quick to talk about them. Moreover, they were generally very enthusiastic. Any product designer would beam with pride if he or she could hear how much their products pleased these people.

(It is interesting that the Saturn division of General Motors now sponsors a group of Saturn owner enthusiasts who get together for picnics, reunions and other opportunities to share their enthusiasm for this car.)

First, second and third-mentioned products which were felt to be right include the following:

TABLE

As the list indicates, the products tend to be basic, everyday things. People use them on a regular basis. They are literally part of daily life, so the rightness feeling would be very immediate and familiar. Absent from the list are high tech items such as microwave ovens and miracle drugs. An item such as a microwave oven represents very complex technology. As we will see below, people like to see how things work; they like to be able to appreciate the designer's ingenuity. Items such as miracle drugs, formal dresswear, mousetraps and Christmas decorations are used so infrequently that they probably fall out of consciousness very easily.

Note that most of the items are tools. They are used for instrumental reasons, that is, for achieving some external goal or change. Not included in the list were expressive items (valued for their own sake) such as paintings, jewelry or family photographs. The Honda rototiller was valued for how it tills the ground, the Saab, for how it gets its owner to work, and the black leather bag, for how it holds many things (clothes, school books, purse items).

In fact, a major attribute that many respondents valued in these items was versatility. Obviously, the Swiss Army Knife does many different things. The runner's watch was valued because it not only keeps time, but also tells time in other time zones, gives lap times, records telephone numbers, and works as an alarm clock. Respondents noted how Soft Scrub washes any surface, the chop saw does many different kinds of wood cuts, the teflon pan cooks practically anything, and the silk blouse and shoe boots can be worn with anything.

Not only is product functionality important in rightness but it also seems to be important that the function is achieved in an ingenious, parsimonious manner, or, what mathematicians would call an elegant solution. As Arnheim (l966) says regarding the function of art, "the number of units employed should not be larger than that needed to attain the effect..." (p. 172). The Macintosh computer owner valued its simplicity, the owner of the Big Bertha golf clubs noted how effective their oversized heads were, and the respondent who liked the Tide return-to-bottle cap noted how it represented such a clean, simple solution to such a messy, sticky problem. The woman who liked the Eureka vacuum cleaner admired its ingenuity insofar as it runs the dirt through a clear pan of water which collects it. Interestingly, this pan is clearly visible using the product. The user can really appreciate the cleverness of the design. In fact, the message for designers here is clear: if you have an ingenious solution to a common user problem, make the solution clearly visible. While this breaks an old rule in design - "design from the inside out"-it might be that people occasionally like to see the workings, particularly if they represent clever design solutions.

Women especially appreciate right products' functionality. The owners of the Macintosh, the Thunderbird automobile, and the Honda rototiller enjoyed the fact that they could operate these things themselves. They did not need to ask a man how to operate them.

Some other findings regarding right items include:

1. Few mentions of price.

Price does not seem play a major role in right products. In fact, one respondent, a young male, indicated his "right" car is a Nissan Pathfinder - although he "couldn't afford one." While a few respondents noted how happy they were that they got a high end item for a good price (silk blouse, Saab, Movado watch, Mazda, stereo, Big Bertha golf clubs, Mercedes 300), price was not mentioned until fairly late in each interview. Again, the message here is clear for marketers: If your product is felt to be right, charge a high price.

2. Brand names are not at top of mind.

It appears that when people think of right products, they think of the category first, and the brand name later. Asked for a "right" product, a respondent might answer, "my sewing machine" or "my skis" and then talk for a while about how these function or look. Only later in the interviews would they mention brand name. This reflects the basic concern noted above with product function.

3. Many flaws.

There is an old saying that a jewel or painting is not truly beautiful unless it has a minor flaw. The same appears to be true with right items. In spite of all the manufacturers' desires to achieve total quality, products which are felt to be right have many things wrong. The Mercedes 300 rides too hard, the Movado watch stops, the runner's watch is ugly, and the Mazda lacks headroom. In spite of these flaws-or perhaps because of them-the owners are strongly attached to them.

4. Prototypical

Particularly among the women respondents, items were felt to be right insofar as they reflected earlier, childhood experiences. The woman who loved the Big Bertha golf clubs because they had oversized heads spoke late in the interview about learning to play golf with her late (and dearly loved) father's clubs-which had oversized heads. The woman who liked the teflon pan spoke of how it brought back warm memories of cooking alongside her grandmother on Sunday mornings. The woman who liked the wicker shelf and cabinet said it reminded her of weekends at her aunt and uncle's farm. New product designers who are developing new designs for products aimed at women might consider exploring childhood memories of items which are close to the category.

5. Reflect personality, self

Many writers (e.g., Moncrieff 1978) note how people feel a sense of oneness with aesthetic objects. As Read (1931) writes, "The work of art is in some sense a liberation of the personality....We contemplate a work of art, and immediately there is a release" (p. 39). There were many instances of felt connections between respondents and items. In many cases, this was physical. The skier, for example, in describing his skis said, (They) .." are so responsive...in the way they turned...that I could almost think about the turn.. and (then) the ski initiated the turn." The woman describing her golf clubs called them, "an extension of myself." Right products, people often claimed, feel like they were built "just for me." The Macintosh computer and Movado watch make their owners feel "comfortable" and "secure."

However, personalities are also expressed in right products in other ways. The owner of the old leather briefcase seemed to have a rather perverse personality, and valued the briefcase because of "its reverse snob appeal." The Big Bertha golf clubs have a striking appearance, and the owner is a person who lives alone and uses things to get attention and meet new people. The Macintosh owner described herself as "more artistic and creative" and "less analytic" than IBM users. The shoeboots owner said of them that "They fit my personality better; they're not ugly, like work boots, but they're not necessarily dress shoes.."

In fact, if there is any one personality trait common across all right items, it is a type of quirkiness or oddness. Perhaps because many of the respondents were drawn from a convenience sample on a college campus, many of the items have an offbeat character. Macintosh is a different computer from a more mainstream IBM product, runners watches are different from regular watches, and the Swiss Army knife is a nontypical jackknife. As indicated above, none of the products were really first to market in their respective categories. Rather, they seemed to be relative latecomers, but with some appealing point of difference. The shoeboots are a novel kind of shoe, and the Movado watch represents a novel design.

6. Love at First Sight, Continued Satisfaction

In describing a banquet room, one respondent told this story:

"I'm getting married, and we were looking for a place to have the wedding and we had been to about 5 or 6 places...this was not quite right...and this other place was not quite right...but then we went to a place called The Highlander in Glens Falls. I went in the lobby and I knew immediately that this was right. It was immaculately clean, the floor was not just marble but inlaid different types of patterns on the floor. (In) it's restaurant, the doors were lead and glass and you just knew that this was right....You go in there and sure enough they had a wedding coordinator.."

As if they were falling in love, respondents seem to know immediately that a product is right for them. There appears to be little post-purchase dissonance, and these products are a continued source of satisfaction. Owners of the Saab and mazda automobiles report sustained feelings of happiness, the Saab owner reporting that, "It just keeps running and running."

CONCLUSION

There appears to be a set of products on the market which consumers feel are especially "right." These products are valued mainly for their functional properties, especially their multi-functionality or versatility and the extent to which they represent ingenious design solutions to user problems. These products seem to reflect or express user personalities, and, in the case of women, sometimes reflect positive, prototypic, childhood experiences. They also have a surprising number of flaws (in an era which stresses total quality management), and do not seem to be have a lot to do with price or brand name.

There is an old saying in marketing that "you sell to one person at a time." Given new manufacturing capabilities such as flexible manufacturing, it may become possible in the future to design and produce specifically individual products for individual consumers. Short of that, designers might consider factors that account for "right" products, and attempt to incorporate these in the planning and design process.

Future research on product rightness will attempt to broaden the sample of consumers and variety of product types. We will be looking for novel ways to understand the experience of rightness and see if there are further differences in ways that different groups share this experience.

REFERENCES

Arnheim, R. (1966) Toward a Psychology of Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cleary, D.P. (1981) Great American Brands. USA: Fairchild Publications.

Cornfield, B. and O. Edwards (1983), Quintessence: The Quality of Having It. New York, Crown Publishers, Inc.

Crawford, C.M. (1991) New Products Management. Boston: Irwin.

Clark, K. and T. Fujimoto, (1990), "The Power of Product Integrity", Harvard Business Review. Nov.-Dec., 107-118.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. and E. Rochberg-Halton (1981), The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Griffin, A.J. (1993) "The Voice of the Customer", Marketing Science. 12 (1).

Hauser, J.R. and D. Clausing (1988) "The House of Quality," Harvard Business Review. May-June, pp 63-73.

Moncrieff, D. (1978) "Aesthetic Consciousness" in Existential-Phenumenological Alternatives for Psychology. R. Valle and M. King, eds. New York: Oxford University Press.

Read, H. (1931) The Meaning of Art. London: Faber and Faber.

Thompson, C., Locander, W. and H. Pollio (1989) "Putting Consumer Experience Back Into Consumer Research: The Philosophy and Method of Existential Phenomenology," Journal of Consumer Research. Vol. 16, Sept. pp. 133-146.

Wallendorf, M. and E.J. Arnould (1988) "My Favorite Things': A Cross-Cultural Inquiry into Object Attachment, Possessiveness, and Social Linkage" Journal of Consumer Research. Vol. 14, pp. 531-547.

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