The Seven Habits of Highly Affective Products

Affective product

A few people, products and experiences have impressed on me the importance of affect, of evoking an emotional response, in persuasion and behaviour change (I’ll admit I haven’t yet addressed how best to incorporate this into the DwI Method). There’s a lot of interesting work on emotional design, and emotionally durable design, which I do need to investigate further. Indeed, next week, I’ll be attending what sounds like a useful seminar at Central St Martins (no apostrophe), ‘Introducing the Affective in Sustainable Design‘, arranged by Kristina Borjesson.

But it struck me that – assuming the field can be reduced into a simple prescription – what would be useful is a manual called The Seven Habits of Highly Affective Products, leveraging the Stephen Covey-style title. When I say ‘products’, I really ought to say ‘systems’ – services, customer experiences and environments should all be considered in this.

What could those 7 (or n) habits be?

(Actually, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Products would be pretty useful, too. As would The Seven Habits of Highly Affective Peoplesomeone on Everything2 had a go…)


  1. Not quite sure if they’re habits or at all what you’re after, but how about these three to start things rolling?

    Has integrity: Does what it says on the tin. Focussed utility. No ulterior purposes or frivolous functions.

    Is reliable: Dependable, durable, resilient, rugged, available.

    Is possessed: 100% the property and responsibility of the purchaser/user. No back doors or hostage holding (monopolised parts/consumables, privileged locks).

  2. My site used to be called Delightful Design, so I suppose I should have a crack at this. I’ve always promoted the idea that good design should delight and not just impress (or “work”). This is explicitly an emotional/psychological approach to design.

    We could start with Vitruvius’s “commodity, firmness and delight”. Something that is useful, durable and beautiful is ticking the boxes in all the three main areas. Some objects may have a purely aesthetic purpose, but then they’re really art rather than products. However, there is much to be said for beauty in ostensibly utilitarian things. If not, why would we see so many different designs in “simple” objects like can openers, corkscrews, etc. I’ve noticed there’s even a trend in producing garden tools with floral patterned handles, etc. Whether this improves the aesthetics is debatable, but the intention is clearly there to make a formerly utilitarian item more visually and emotionally attractive.

    On durability, it’s implicit that something with a function that we want to be emotionally stable over time must maintain that function to a useful degree. This doesn’t preclude us servicing and maintaining it but if necessary, it does imply that maintenance should be possible, preferably by the user with minimal skills and materials. The object’s performance and aesthetics should also degrade gracefully if damage is sustained or maintenance isn’t performed regularly. To be able to recover/restore an object that has long been neglected is wonderful.

    Some examples that spring to mind:

    – Duralex glasses. They nest for easy carrying/storage. They look good (mine are the “Picardie” design). They sit well in the hand, being neither too fragile nor too heavy. Best of all, if you drop one it’ll most probably bounce rather than break.

    – Nikon FM/FM2 series film cameras. Solid metal bodies that look better with a few scuffs and dents. Mechanical shutter and film advance that is relatively straightforward to repair if necessary and will most probably work, albeit sub-optimally, when damaged. Only the built-in light meter is battery dependent; when the battery runs out, the camera will still take pictures, though you’ll need to estimate the exposures or use another camera/meter. Combine with a similarly abuse-tolerant film (eg. Tri-X) and you can take pictures almost anywhere.

    – Nazi architecture by Speer, etc. mandated that buildings must be stone structures without steel frames. In a conscious attempt to emulate the great classical civilisations, the Nazis wanted to leave elegant ruins of their cities once the thousand year reich had finally passed. Dubious politics but an interesting long-term design requirement.

    Resistance to functional obsolesence is a prerequisite for emotional durability. High technology products are always going to suffer on this score. If you can’t get the batteries/memory cards/cartridges/blank discs/ribbons or plug it into your current computer then you can’t use it.

    Going up a level, emotionally durable products are those that meet real human needs. Which of course begs the question… (Papanek’s Design for the Real World is a place to start here.)

    Christopher Alexander of “A Pattern Language” fame writes about Fifteen Fundamental Properties of things which give them a greater or lesser degree of “life” in “The Phenomenon of Life”. He argues that people instinctively have similar feelings towards relatively “living” and “dead” things (ie. inanimate objects, buildings, products). These properties work primarily on an aesthetic level.

    To draw an analogy with people and human relationships, there are the one-night stands, the brief crazy flings and the lifelong partnerships. Like our partners, we want our products to mature rather than wither as they age, to be honest and dependable, to respond well to care and attention but not to complain too much when it’s temporarily absent, for the lows to be tolerable and the highs to be ecstatic.

    But then, all things are moving towards their end. Perhaps a good way of discerning what makes emotionally durable products is to find them and examine them. Which are your oldest possessions that you still love, or the ones you most regret losing?

  3. Dan

    Thanks Adrian and Crosbie, some very good points.

    It almost seems as though the factors you mention – the ‘delight’ and ‘integrity’ (or the lack of them) in particular – force a kind of division in our minds between the products we see as ‘worth hanging on to/keeping’ (Adrian’s “Which are your oldest possessions that you still love, or the ones you most regret losing?” test) and things that are only a transitory part of our lives.

    If I look around at the objects on the desk in front of me, I could say with a good degree of certainty which ones I’ll still be using in, say, 10 years’ time. They’re mostly books, in fact – which is interesting in itself – but also a couple of (refillable) pens, some electrical connectors and adaptors, a transistor tester from the ’70s, some mugs – and that’s about it. The laptop will be in a cupboard somewhere; I wouldn’t throw it away but equally I doubt it will be be meeting everyday computing needs.

    But I wouldn’t say I’m emotionally involved with these (functionally) durable products, except for a couple of the books and one of the pens, perhaps, and that’s primarily because of the memories associated with them. As Adrian says, “Resistance to functional obsolescence is a prerequisite for emotional durability,” but it’s necessary rather than sufficient.

    I’ll see what I can learn at the seminar at Central St Martins and post a bit about it here…

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  5. Ooh, an intellispam comment!

    Now, if only they’d used a neural net that incorporated the RIGHT key words in the original article title/body, we might forgive them for suggesting that cork floors were an affective product to which one could have an emotional response (rather than simply question as ‘sustainable’).

    Unfortunately, there’s a clear loss of integrity that results from misrepresenting an unwelcome advertisement as an on-topic/relevant comment. I will not be buying or recommending any Wicanders Cork Oak Floors – no matter how careful they’ve been in preparing ‘plausible deniability’ against their reprehensible advertising strategy.

  6. As it becomes increasingly relevant and topical, when, precisely, does spam stop being spam?

  7. In thinking about the products and systems I use which are in one way or another “affective”, I can come up with a few examples in my immediate vicinity and everyday life (I’m going to do only positive affects here since that seems like it’s most constructive): one piece of furniture, a few articles of clothing, a few pieces of software, a web development framework (one guess as to which), and the new transit pass system in my city (Montréal).

    What do they have in common? They’re comfortable. While this may seem fairly clear in the case of a lounge chair, a pair of jeans, and a pair of shoes, what do I mean by “comfortable” in other contexts? Well, they fit. I don’t have to adapt myself to using them, I don’t have to change my behaviours (or if I do, the change actually feels like I’m moving from an unnatural behaviour to a natural one). When you put on a pair of shoes in a store and have that “wow” moment when you feel like the shoe was molded to your foot, the design, and therefore the product, have that much more of an affect. Same goes for any piece of software: I tried a bunch of music players before settling on Amarok, but it’s the first one that I find really “fits” me.

    In many cases, these designs are iconic, and present a strong brand. This is why Apple customers are more emotionally connected with their products than, say, Dell customers are. My favourite t-shirt and Ruby on Rails have this in common. There’s no mistaking them for anything else, even if what you see is a slightly different version, or is partially obscured, or in a different language, etc.

    They feel irreplaceable. I could spend all of next week in furniture and shoe stores, with an unlimited budget, and I might not find a shoe or a chair that I like as much as my current ones. The feeling that a product is somewhat of a historical accident, and can’t be recreated, adds enormously to its affect. I’m not a musician, but I understand that certain models of guitar are valued for this exact reason.

    And with regards to what you said about resistance to obsolescence, that’s another interesting point: two of my picks (Amarok and Ruby on Rails), pass that test because they’re open source projects, and I have faith that they will continue to evolve along with technology, all the while staying true to the aesthetic and other ideals that make me love them.

  8. Rosie Hornbuckle

    The CSM seminar last week was great: some notes on what makes us want to keep an object…
    a timeless function (as others have stated) and / or
    3-way investment (emotional, financial and effort)

    Things which have a timeless function are perhaps easiest to address… t-shirts, chairs and mugs will always be useful either to us or others. Electronics on the other hand are a completely different ball-game, I would say that here timeless design and emotional attachment aren’t effective and instead investment of money (relative to the user’s income) and effort (time, energy, personal settings, learning to use it etc) offer most potential. This is all down to the ‘value’ systems at work between the object and the user – complex and often at odds with one another.

    One more point… we need to be thinking not just in terms of what makes an object ‘affective’ to one person but how obselescence can be avoided through multiple use phases… remanufacturing (reconditioning with warranty) comes to mind

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