My family got a very hard lesson recently in how human beings give meaning to objects. Coming back from a plane trip, my six-year-old’s favorite stuffed animal was left on the plane. Despite multiple trips to the airport lost and found, poor Moussie was gone. All of us cried. Once my wife even remarked, “We’ve cried less for human family members who have died.” And it was true. This stuffed dog had an incredible amount of meaning for us.
In considering the characteristics of good interaction design for my book, meaningful was one trait I have frequently thought I overlooked. But I’m not sure designers can really make anything meaningful to anyone. Objects only become meaningful through use and context.
Mugge’s underlying idea was that if people feel strongly attached to a product, they will be less likely to discard it (which her research confirmed). The lifespan of the product therefore increases, which has positive environmental effects. Mugge distinguishes four factors influencing product bonding: self-expression (can I distinguish myself with a product?), group affinity (does ownership of a product connect me to a group?), memories (related to the product) and pleasure (provided by the product).
Now, I have not read Making Meaning: How Successful Companies Deliver Meaningful Experiences yet, but I am dubious that designers alone can make a product meaningful. Pleasurable, yes. Useful, yes. But meaningful? Significance is a personal thing; what might be important to one person is garbage to another. I’m not sure you can make meaning anymore than you make an experience; both are created in the minds of users. As a designer, you can only design for the possibility of meaning (and for an experience).
I think I am much more of the school of thought outlined by Peter-Paul Verbeek in his book What Things Do (My review). Products, Verbeek writes, coshape the relation between humans and the world. Objects allow us to form a relationship with the world based on how they are used. The meaning we derive from objects comes from that use. Had my daughter’s stuffed animal sat on a shelf untouched, it would not have the same meaning as it had because it was used. Thus, designers should design for use, not meaning. Meaning comes through use. Verbeek says, “Products to which people develop an attachment are not generally as emotionally charged and irreplaceably present as heirlooms, but neither are they as anonymous as a throw-away item…what distinguishes these goods from our most loved possessions is that they are used rather than cherished.”
Moussie was both used and cherished. He was meaningful. Goodbye, old friend. Thanks for everything.