Personality & Attachment. What makes us lead personalised lifes?
In a world where customers more and more are defining themselves less by how many things they own and more by how curated their lives are in terms of possessions and experiences, dr Ruth Mugge professor at Delft University of Technology precisely dissects this personalisation trend by amongst others elaborating on hair driers, real estate projects and the circular economy.
Time-sequenced questions and transcript of the interview below.
- 00M08 Dr. Mugge, you work as a professor at the department of product innovation management of the faculty industrial design engineering here at the technical University in Delft. Can you give a brief introduction of yourself?
- 00M57 Having done fundamental research in this field of attachment as you just mentioned, what findings surprised you and which ones in fact did not?
- 02M18 Can you give an example that is illustrative of what you have just said?
- 03M10 How do cues of attachment manifest themselves in products? And how do you make sure they are there and not just by chance?
- 05M15 Has your research produced strategies in order to deliberately make these design cues a part of the design process?
- 06M15 Assume you were the head of a major apparel brand and you were aware of this research about product attachment, how would you make use of it in order to promote your brand?
- 08M32 I like my jeep because it is tough, like me’ this is the intriguing title of one of the publications you co-authored. What categories of products can actually assume personalities and which – in your opinion – cannot?
- 12M04 You have written a publication on product personality. What could be a reason that we only see relatively few applications of product personality in the commercial field, whereas the opportunities seem very promising?
- 13M25 Assuming that product attachment can be stimulated or even anticipated by designing products with pre-determined personality that matches the personality of its target group, would this also hold true for designing real estate projects? How could real estate developers go about ‘designing for attachment’?
- 15M24 What would you advise real estate developers to do in the sense that there are aspects of a house that are hard to change – for example, the facade – where the interior is just like a décor. In the theatre, you can give it any appearance of personality if you would like to, that you want to have it. So is there anything you have observed?
- 17M50 There is this Japanese author – Mary Kondo – and a couple of years ago she published the book ‘the life changing magic of tidying up.’ Amongst others she argues that discarding stuff should be done with some ritual, almost rite of passage, I would say, it made me think ritually of moving from attachment to detachment. So would there be a case to timely help people realise their detachment of stuff and how they can anticipate that?
- 19M48 Would there be a case for preventing such a situation by helping people make more deliberate choices in the sense that they choose for true products that they can truly attach to.
- 20M26 There is a car critic Peter Rosenthal, who argues that the attractiveness of cars depends on the same physical factors as does the attractiveness of humans. For example, the shape of eyebrows, the size of the eyes, the width of mouth or shoulders and so on. He even dared to propose that on the basis of these factors success of car design could be predicted. You work with psychological factors in design. What can you say of its predictive power?
- 22M49 The psychological factors in design. Do they have a predictive power in terms of the success of a design?
- 23M31 To wrap it up, two questions: Where in the near future, might we see applications of product attachment or product appearance research? What are the themes that your research is going to be directed by?
00M08 Dr. Mugge, you work as a professor at the department of product innovation management of the faculty industrial design engineering here at the technical University in Delft. Can you give a brief introduction of yourself?
Okay, I did a masters in innovation management here at the faculty of industrial design engineering so I’m actually educated as designer but mostly focusing on what type of innovations companies should introduce in order to fit with consumer needs and also fit with their own strategies, for example.
So not really the production side of the designer, more of the strategic managerial side of the design. In my research I always study how consumers respond to products in order to help the designers create better products, in a way.
00M57 Having done fundamental research in this field of attachment as you just mentioned, what findings surprised you and which ones in fact did not?
If I can start with the ones that did not, then I need to say the memories. So if you ask people to what products do you feel most deeply attached, they will always come with a certain reminder of their parents or their grandparents or a gift.
Something that’s so obvious, that didn’t surprise me. On the other hand, when I started doing the PhD I was a bit in doubt actually whether designs can actually stimulate those bonds. Especially because you’re really thinking of strong reminders and as a designer, can you actually stimulate that?
Then, because I don’t think you can stimulate these memories, but then trigger the attachment in a different way? So what surprised me the most is indeed the multiple strategies you can implement as a designer to indeed stimulate these bonds.
And one of the things that I’ve investigated, for example, was personalisation. So if you use a certain personalisation strategy, so as a designer, you allow the consumer to do something with the product himself, then that can stimulate an emotional bond.
02M18 Can you give an example that is illustrative of what you have just said?
Okay well if you look at the personalisation, that happens for example with bicycles. You see especially with young adults, paint their bicycles a lot. So my studies have compared a group of students that have painted their bicycles with a group of students that did not paint their bicycles.
So if you then can compare attachment levels, so I ask them do you feel an emotional bond with your bicycle?
Even though both bicycle groups were low in monetary value, they were really cheap bicycles of course, they were no difference in utilitarian value, just the fact they had personalised it so they had invested something of themselves which made the bicycle more expressive of their identity that’s why they felt more deeply attached to it.
03M10 How do cues of attachment manifest themselves in products? And how do you make sure they are there and not just by chance?
If you look at attachment, my research actually has shown there are four determinants or four reasons why people become attached to it. The first one is self-expression so that was what I was referring to before with the personalisation.
So if you have a product that expresses who you are a person, you are more attached to it. Another determined is group affiliation, so if a product shows to its a group of people you belong, you can also develop a personal attachment to it.
An example that I personally feel attached to is a auto vase, it’s a specific vase, it was designed by a famous designer in the past and for me it symbolises the design community because it’s such a symbol of design and being a member of the design community I therefore developed a bond to this vase.
Of course memories so we talked about already. If you have a product that is a really strong reminder of a past event. Again, if I recall on items I personally feel attached, I own this bear sculpture and I actually bought the bear sculpture after seeing this bear in the wild.
So I went to Canada and at some point, I spotted this black bear and after it, I bought this bear sculpture so if I see the bear sculpture it still reminds me of the special event where I saw the bear running in the wild and it was an amazing experience.
And the last determinant is pleasure so if a product really functions well, or it is very beautiful to look at then you can more strongly attached to it. So in all those cases, sometimes they just happen by chance, they’re not officially steered by the designer but some of these things you can also steer as a designer so both of these possibilities exist.
05M15 Has your research produced strategies in order to deliberately make these design cues a part of the design process?
Yeah, that was the intention of the PhD to really come with these design strategies so I specifically investigated several strategies.
One of them was the personalisation that I already talked about, another one was product personality so if you can create a product in a certain way that it has a personality in it, for example if a product looks cheerful or looks serious or looks cute, if you as a consumer recognise that in your own personality.
So for example, I consider myself to be a modern conscientious a bit serious person, so I search for products that have this same personality. So if I recognise that in this product I am more likely to see it as an expression of my identity and therefore develop an emotional bond to it.
06M15 Assume you were the head of a major apparel brand and you were aware of this research about product attachment, how would you make use of it in order to promote your brand?
Yeah if you look at my research there’s actually two design strategies that I think would be very interesting for apparel brands. The first is to get the personalisation, you see this with Nike, they have these shoes that you can customise them.
So you can actually select the colours for the different parts of these shoes, and by choosing all those colours you’re making this creative design process to create your own shoes you really make these unique shoes that again fit your identity again, so they fit your personality and also very unique.
So in that sense that’s an interesting strategy because you’re providing them an option that is not necessarily there if they go to an ordinary store. Second is I think it’s also interesting for apparel brands is like ageing with dignity, a strategy that I describe in one of my papers, as a strategy that changes the material by use.
So in order to trigger some sort of a memory or at least to show you have been using this product for a while, to show a history between you and the product, it’s very interesting if the material of the product changes. And especially with with clothing, you can change the material as a result of uses.
Quite clear example is the use of leather for example, if you use leather It actually becomes prettier by use because there’s a bit of wear and tear and some scratches there and actually as a result, it fits you better and it also gives this very unique feel to it. So if you want to stimulate this feeling of attachment, that can also be a way to trigger it, by making use of materials that have the tendency to age gracefully and really become beautiful over time..
08M32 I like my jeep because it is tough, like me’ this is the intriguing title of one of the publications you co-authored. What categories of products can actually assume personalities and which – in your opinion – cannot?
Well I actually think that most products have personalities, even though they may not have been designed like that. Because of the shape, because of the colour they have a personality. And I have a few examples that I wanted to share with you.
These are hair dryers, and again you would say why would I want a hair dryer that says something about my identity because it’s only something that you use inside, your friends hardly see it but it still, you can see all these variations. So I have four of them. This is the first one I want to show you.
You can see it’s a very small one, it’s a pink one and if you would determine a personality because of the shape, it’s quite small shape and quite condensed and the colour, it’s a bit of a little, cute, sweet little hair dryer. On the other hand, if you look at this one, this black one.
It’s a much more professional hair dryer. Whereas if you look at this one a black one, it has a much more serious feel to it, it’s business-like and actually people associate it with also hair dryer, the official hair dryer like that they use in a hairdresser’s. And also it’s quite lengthy.
And as a result of this difference already, this is quite interesting because there’s two different colours and different shapes, the black one is more associated with higher quality than the pink one even though price wise, they’re the same price more or less. What’s even more interesting, if I look at this one, the red one.
If you look at the product personality of this one, It’s extrovert, It’s screaming red hair dryer, this one is the most expensive of the ones on the table here. This is a really expensive hair dryer but if I ask people about what they associate this product with, they don’t see it that well because it’s a little bit screaming, because of the extrovertness within the object, it actually harms the performance quality in that sense.
So you already see this product personality in these hair dryers also affects the perception of quality that people see in those hair dryers. The last one is to get a total view, is this white one, the personality is a bit modest honesty, less of the seriousness but still. Yeah..
What brings about modesty in this hair dryer that you just showed?
Well in my opinion it is the colour – it’s the white with the grey. Also if you compare it with this one, this is really screaming for attention whereas this one is much more subtle and it’s partly because of the shape because it’s quite lengthy whereas this one is much more round and condensed.
12M04 You have written a publication on product personality. What could be a reason that we only see relatively few applications of product personality in the commercial field, whereas the opportunities seem very promising?
I have to say that I’m not really sure. I think if you look at car design, for example. There they’re really focusing on it a lot.
They really think it through what specific personality is in the design, they really test it very thoroughly, on the other hand if you look at more common products, even though you see some difference in product personality, then it’s still not really certain whether the designers have thought about that beforehand and I guess if you look at things that go wrong, like the red hair dryer I was referring to, because I think personally went wrong because it doesn’t show the personality that the designer was after.
I think it’s just a lack of thinking it through. I think they are focusing already on so many things, like it needs to fit the brand, it needs to be distinctive from our competitors and then as a result of it, they may overlook the importance of this product personality effect.
13M25 Assuming that product attachment can be stimulated or even anticipated by designing products with pre-determined personality that matches the personality of its target group, would this also hold true for designing real estate projects? How could real estate developers go about ‘designing for attachment’??
I think it’s possible because yeah, if you look at houses in a way they’re also objects that you use to show who you are and especially yeah if you compare to the hair dryer, houses are much more prominent and showing who you are to your friends and your family so in that sense it would be an interesting way to look at houses and real estate in that sense.
So I think there is definitely opportunities there and how to go about it? For example if you look at newly build houses in which you can as a person really design your own place and really have the freedom of creating the house the way you want it there I think there are strong personalities in product personalities, or object personality – real estate personality I should say.
And owners personality you see happening, sometimes you see very interesting buildings that are really built for an individual because he really wanted to have something that was really created for him, personally. So we definitely see buildings that are really built from scratch, you could say, then people really have influence.
On the other hand, it would be interesting to look at existing objects, existing houses and how you can go about and maybe check what’s the personality of the house and what’s the personality of the person and whether there is a match between that..
15M24 What would you advise real estate developers to do in the sense that there are aspects of a house that are hard to change – for example, the facade – where the interior is just like a décor. In the theatre, you can give it any appearance of personality if you would like to, that you want to have it. So is there anything you have observed?
Well not that I have observed but I can give my opinion about it. If you look at it and the things that can’t be changed, those are the things to see whether there’s a match between them. Does this personality of the house match with the owner?
And in order to trigger the owner to see through the other parts of the house, the things that can be changed, nowadays you have all these 3D applications that can show this is also that way this house could look like.
If you would just change these things so if you were to kick out this wall and change the kitchen this way, then it will look like this. So if you already provide potential buyers of a house, with certain options, it can go this way or that way, that can help to see through those things.
So I think the match should be on the things that cannot be changed then you need to convince the buyer, you’re looking at it now with this dark wooden floor and I see that the dark wood is a bit too gloomy and you’re much more bright optimistic person and you don’t want that but if you take the floor away and put this floor in, it would be much more fitting with your personality.
So would it be fair to say that product personality might become a component of virtual reality of a content component?
Yeah, I guess for sure. I think virtual reality can play a huge role in triggering consumers and buyers of houses to see what the place could also look like because then they are also experiencing the house and going through the house in the same way would just see the house, but then they can see it at least in the way that matches their own thing and their own identity.
17M50 There is this Japanese author – Mary Kondo – and a couple of years ago she published the book ‘the life changing magic of tidying up.’ Amongst others she argues that discarding stuff should be done with some ritual, almost rite of passage, I would say, it made me think ritually of moving from attachment to detachment. So would there be a case to timely help people realise their detachment of stuff and how they can anticipate that?
Well one of the studies that we did is actually, we followed people across several months and we followed them, how they interact with several products and we saw that some people at some point in time, they actually put their product away.
So they put the item in a closet or they put it somewhere they didn’t see it, you can put it in the attic. And that’s the first step of detachment. So as long as you’re using a product on a regular basis then you’re still encountering it and because you’re still encountering it, the special meaning of the product stays alive.
So as a result, you’re still interacting with it and the special meaning stays important to you. However, as soon as you put it aside, and you don’t see it that much anymore, so f you put it in an attic or in a shed or somewhere where you don’t encounter it then slowly the meaning gets loosened, you could say, you’re not as close to the object anymore because you’re not living it on a daily, weekly, monthly basis.
19M48 Would there be a case for preventing such a situation by helping people make more deliberate choices in the sense that they choose for true products that they can truly attach to.
I think that would be the ideal situation. You would ideally see a situation where people buy products and really make good use of it. So they don’t just buy products and then dispose of it quite easily, I think from a sustainability perspective and in order to create a sustainable society, in which we all need to make best use of our resources so to say, you should as a designers stimulate people to buy products and use products in such a way that they get optimal use of resources.
20M26 There is a car critic Peter Rosenthal, who argues that the attractiveness of cars depends on the same physical factors as does the attractiveness of humans. For example, the shape of eyebrows, the size of the eyes, the width of mouth or shoulders and so on. He even dared to propose that on the basis of these factors success of car design could be predicted. You work with psychological factors in design. What can you say of its predictive power?
I guess he’s right to a certain extent. I don’t fully believe what he is saying but if you look at what people find attractive, there’s a lot of evolutionary reasons why we think certain things are attractive. For example, with faces, people really find symmetrical faces very pretty.
And as a result, that’s something really in our system, it’s an innate preference you could say so it goes out and affects all of our perceptions. So if you see products and also cars, of course we like those that have these specific features so we like symmetric things again. So there are things that are really comparable how we judge faces and how we judge cars.
On the other hand, there are much more. You could say fashion effects going on in cars, for example if you look at the cars we liked 10 years ago, it’s completely different from the cars we like now and I’m convinced to say 10 years from now, again we will like different cars. So in addition to this evolutionary things, there’s also timely things going on.
So in time, people’s preferences change because of things they are seeing and because of the prototypical thing at that point in time. So it is not the one-on-one relationship this person is suggesting but there is definitely a correspondence and yeah again evolutionary reasons why we find certain things attractive or not.
22M49 The psychological factors in design. Do they have a predictive power in terms of the success of a design?
Yes definitely. They do because I did one of my other studies actually, we investigated what people found attractive and we indeed also found some evolutionary things like symmetry and also simplicity, so they liked a little bit more of a clean design, not too complex.
But in addition to that, we found some differences between so people so actually we could relate those differences between like age. So younger people and older people. The generation that they belong to. And also the educational level. So if you look at young people, they liked much more dynamic shapes and the psychological reason behind it is they want to go for speed and dynamic because the think of themselves as a young, fast individual whereas older people have that tendency far less.
Also differences between lower and higher educated people, with the lower educated people liking actually much more muscular designs. So if you look at lower educated people and the jobs that are actually very well paid, they are the more physical labour jobs.
So really the jobs that require more muscles and we saw the resemblance also in the design of the objects that they liked so they also liked the more massive tough designs whereas the higher educated people have that much less.
23M31 To wrap it up, two questions: Where in the near future, might we see applications of product attachment or product appearance research? What are the themes that your research is going to be directed by?
If you think about what attachment can bring in the near future. Circular economy is an interesting perspective to look at this. From a circular economy actually we want products to go back. For example smartphones there’s a lot of critical materials that are involved in smartphones so if we just keep producing more smart phones like we do at the moment then at some point, there’s not enough materials anymore.
We don’t have enough resources. So in order to make the best use out of products, I think product attachment can also be one of the strategies. Circular economy really tries to make better use of products. This partly uses recycling strategies to just close the loop and make sure the materials are not lost but are actually used again but there are different strategies in a circular economy and one of the first strategies is to extend uses.
So yeah, to make a longer use of your products in order to make better value out of the resources that are used. So actually, if you look at product attachment, it’s a strategy in order to stimulate people to make longer use of their product so in that sense from a circular economy perspective, that’s really the thing to go for with attachment, so that’s really interesting approach and to really see what I want to explore in the next few years is related to that so just being attached to it is not enough, because usually a product needs some sort of care, maintenance it needs to be repaired at some point.
So the research I want to explore next few years has to do with that. I want to explore what can trigger people to really care about their products, so what can trigger them to maintain them, so they can actually make longer use of them, to repair them when they break own. So again, smartphones, if you have a scratch on your screen, what can stimulate people to actually fix that rather than to buy a new one?
So all this, again, those design strategies that you can implement in order to it easier for people to maintain their products or to make it more interesting or more fun to maintain their products.
Interview Peter van der Bel, founder & curator of The Centre for Applied Product Personality Research