Goodbye dear product (it's not you it's me) - A few thoughts on the value of things.

Some objects become more important to us than others. There are lots of different reasons for why a thing become important to someone, but sentimentality and uniqueness are obvious factors. We observed another not so obvious factor in studies around the world when we investigated understanding and attitudes toward a UI-concept for smart networked products: When an object is represented by an interactive avatar, something recogniseable as a kind of "person" who people have dialogue-like interactions with, many people's build up a committed relation with those objects, sometimes to an extent that they would be very reluctant to discard such an object. This is an interesting way to augment the perceived value of products.

People’s perceived value of artefacts in general can, if we simplify a bit, be mapped in a diagram of utilitarian vs. emotional values:

thing relations

From what people told us about their relations to their things it also seem to be a strong correlation between these values and the objects' prominence in people's daily consciousness. Just outside or at the edges of people's awareness we find things that have dominantly practical values (at least when they work without error), whereas things that have mostly emotional value have a much more noticeable place in our minds. The latter are often important parts of people's identity and are carriers of stories of personal relevance. Many told us that it was much more likely that they would try to repair those things rather than replacing them. And finally, objects that holds both high affective value as well as high functional and/or symbolic value are seen as essential belongings, objects kept for life and sometimes even passed on to the next generation.

In our studies we made people interact via a graphical user interface where they performed text-based dialogues with avatars representing different inanimate objects. It was clear that quite quickly many of the participants began to regard the objects as social entities. They were of course intelectually aware that the things were just dead things, and that the experienced sociality was in fact artificial, but the brief conversational interactions nevertheless triggered feelings of social obligation and sometimes even affection and considerateness towards the things. What was especially interesting was how some of the participants in the studies spontaneously expressed that they realised how this would have an impact on their feelings about throwing things away, or buying new stuff.

At a TED-x event in Helsinki, Ulla-Maaria Engeström (founder of Thinglink) connected similar topics in this talk about how well designed good quality products makes people emotionally involved which in turn could lead to more sustainable consumption patterns, i.e. produce less trash because people stick to things longer. Another example which I think is related is the '2nd Cycle' project from 2007, where the finnish furniture manufacturer Artek recycled their own old Alvar Alto stools, second hand, worn and torn, but each item included it's unique history, accessible via an RFID tag. New owners of each stool could also add to it's legacy over time. Here, connecting a product with unique data and information was a way of achieving more emotional value in products, and their idea was that an old recycled product could become more valuable than the same brand new one.

cycle Melander

Although we didn't focus on product quality or provenance in our studies, but rather a kind of virtual product behaviour, I think what we found in our studies indirectly supports these ideas.

Trash is a huge problem, especially in big cities, and many agree that a behavioural change is needed. Changing attidudes and behaviour of large groups of people is not a trivial problem, but what if part of a solution to that could be well designed good quality products with chatty avatars and individual biographies? Of course there are things that indicates that saving the world is far more complex matters. But anyway. It's a nice thought.

Talking about complex matters; many of our respondents expressed quite contradicting feelings. On one hand they sometimes felt bad that they bought things that were never used, and many welcomed the idea of things with avatars since they thought it might make them use those things more, easing their bad conscience. On the other hand they also opposed the idea since they realised that feelings for a thing was a threat to their shopping habits. As one woman in Tokyo said to us - "This is not good! It will be very hard for me to throw away my old couch and buy a new one if I've just had a chat with it!"

This short film nails this paradox quite brilliantly

Top photo of valuable objects by Mats Hage Eikemo, found on flickr and on the Burning House blog. Photo of recycled Alvar Aalto stools by Marco Melander/Artek. Big thanks to Timo Arnall and Jack Schultze for showing me the IKEA commercial!

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