Hopeful. Curious. Intimate. Elegant. This project promises to help with Overwhelm. It promises to help with falling into a rut. It promises to help with designating time to ourselves. Guilt-free time. It promises a lot of things. A lot of hope. A lot of fear. Fear of disappointment. Hope of success. It sparks curiosity and skepticism. I need to experience it first-hand. It’s a personal experience. Only I can know how it feels. Only I can know how I feel. Overwhelms hidden. Secrecy. That’s part of the mystique. Hanging it on the wall camouflages it as art. Is it art? It has meaning. I see me in it. I see an ideal me. An ideal of how I want to be. How society wants me to be. A balanced me. It nurtures me. It does not coddle. It invites me. It does not shame. It respects me. It does not patronize.
The term user experience isn’t new for most designers, in fact it’s been around since Don Norman wrote his incredibly famous book “The Design of Everyday Things”. While user experience is the main component in Human-Centered design, I find it to be an umbrella term that includes more specific types of user experiences ranging from spatial experience to digital experience to emotional experience. Product Experience is a relatively newer term that focuses on the experiences one has with a physical object. Of course experiences are unique to their context and the user’s individuality, just to name a few. This does not mean that there isn’t a general commonality in our experiences due to our human nature. Most, if not all, are based on our relationship with the natural world. We receive signals from the environment that get interpreted automatically. When we take a closer look at product experience, we can see how it’s possible to identify this pattern.
Product experience can be broken down into 3 main components that make up a complete experience with the product. These are in the nature of aesthetics, attributed and associated meanings and emotions.
The aesthetic factors of an object include everything relating to the stimulation of our main 5 senses. Colors, textures, sounds, smells, shapes, tastes, etc. Of these, we are most immediately aware of colors. We think about how colors affect something when we decide what clothes to wear and what colors to paint our homes. We categorize them into bright or dull, warm or cold. Biologically, we are attracted to brighter colors. This is one of the reasons why we are attracted to rainbows, fireworks, well lit spaces. Our brains react positively to those colors. When it comes to shapes, our brains are in high alert when we are in the presence of geometric, angular shapes and relaxed around organic shapes. When we are attracted to characteristics that go against the biological attraction, its considered an acquired taste like coffee or wine. Now when we think about these characteristics, we know that they are inherent in absolutely everything around us since everything stimulates our senses to some degree. Symmetry, roundness, smoothness, pleasant tactility, saturated colors, pleasant odors, sweet tastes. In product design, these elements are designed through the selection and treatment of materials.
In addition to their aesthetic values, materials carry with them attributed and associated meanings. These meanings are typically cultural but there are certain meanings that correspond to the materials physical characteristics which are universal. For example, wood is warm to the touch therefore we attribute it meanings related to warmth such as coziness and inviting much like we would describe a warm person. The meanings that don’t have to do with the objects physical attributes are more related to the social associations of the object. For example, a matte metal material is considered sleek, elegant, modern, sophisticated. Metal and glass are universally considered modern due to the developments of these materials as opposed to wood. The elegance, sophistication and sleekness can be attributed to the minimalist movement overtaking the market in recent years.
The last component of product experience is the emotional factor. Despite general belief, designers can provoke emotions. Emotions are a result of an automatic evaluation we do subconsciously that let us know whether something is beneficial or harmful to us and our priorities in the given moment. This is referred to as the appraisal theory. We don’t necessarily have to be aware of the appraisal in order to feel the psychological and behavioral responses to it. For example, when we accidently touch a heated stove burner, we immediately remove our hands. This would be the behavioral response and the jolt of adrenaline and quick sudden fear would be the psychological response.
There are different ways a product can trigger an emotion, but I’m only focusing on two: functional triggers and aesthetic triggers. The aesthetic triggers are through the aesthetic characteristics of the product. The emotions we get because of these triggers exist in the spectrum between desire and disgust based on the biological responses to the aesthetic characteristics as mentioned before and our personal preferences. Emotions caused by the function of the product refers to the ability and effectiveness of an object in helping us achieve our goals. As I mentioned in the Junction section, our goals can be as abstract as achieving happiness or as concrete as throwing out the trash. The emotions can occur as we use the objects or through the anticipation of usage. Although the anticipation is connected to the function of the object, it is more directly provoked through the branding of the product. If our goals are met, we can feel joy but if they are not we can feel frustration.
I desire this because I believe it will make me feel
- happy/pretty/healthy/successful/productive/ useful.
I am satisfied with this because it makes me feel
- happy/pretty/healthy/successful/productive/ useful.
I applied these concepts back when I designed the Fountain Faucet. For the design, I had picked a warm colored ceramic as an attempt to counteract the typical metal one. These metal kitchen faucets can subconsciously make the environment cold and unwelcoming.
All together, the aesthetic characteristics, the attributed and associated meanings and the emotional responses, form the trifecta for creating a product experience. This is what I used to understand objects around me and integrate them into my decisions when designing the Labyrinth.
Have you ever held something in your hands, and have it felt just right? As if it was made using your hand as a mold to create the shape. As if the weight was decided according to your individual strength in your hands. As if the material was chosen to fit your tactile sensitivity. That’s how I felt when I first held what is now my favorite object in my kitchen.
I remember watching cooking shows with my mother during my childhood. We would sit on the couch and turn on The Food Network. Our favorite show was 30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray. Ray’s upbeat attitude and approachable methods in the kitchen sparked my interest in the kitchen. As I made my own meals, I would talk to an imaginary audience as if I had my own cooking show. I had about a handful of go-to dishes to make that would follow me until the end of my Bachelor’s. As I entered the fast-paced world of college and adulthood, I lost any interest I had in cooking. Something about spending 2 hours in the kitchen preparing a meal that is going to disappear in 30 minutes doesn’t really motivate me. I cooked for survival; I microwaved, cooked rice on a rice cooker and used the bare minimum dried spices avoiding any sorts of dicing and slicing. Unlike most, my kitchen was equipped with the essentials for each of my meals: a spatula, a pasta spoon, a pot, a pan and a microwavable mixing bowl. Some people are very particular about their cooking utensils, their knives, their pots, their pans. They carefully dissect every option on the market and pick the one that satisfies their every need. They pride themselves in having the best of the best. In my case, the only knives I owned were steak knives for when I needed to cut my food while I ate. I’m not a caveperson after all. Granted, part of the reason why I owned very few cooking utensils was my financial situation as a student; cooking utensils aren’t exactly on my priority list of investments.
It was in my friend Val’s kitchen that I first encountered the object of my admiration. Its physical appearance, of course, was the first thing that attracted me to it. Most knives I’d seen were made of two parts: the blade and the handle. These two parts are not necessarily different materials but definitely two distinct parts; both individuals to their own style, shape, color or material. This one was just one part: the knife. I’m not saying that there isn’t a blade or a handle. One can still look at it and know which end to hold on to and which end to stab things with, but it’s one harmonious part, one brushed and satin stainless-steel part. The transition between the two sides of the knife is a subtle one, a smooth organic slope that slowly rises from the blade to form the handle. The handle continues this subtlety as it gradually forms a slight curve that fits my fingers just right, without making it too obvious that this is where the fingers are supposed to be. Angled lines cover both sides of the handle giving it the needed friction to avoid it from slipping from your hands. It calls my hand to grab it. So, I do.
When I hold it, I realize that its weight and proportions are perfectly balanced. Now, full disclosure, I didn’t know what a paring knife was for, but the weight of the knife felt like it was perfect for whatever you need it to do. As I felt it, I noticed that the angled lines on the side of the handle aren’t just lines, they are shallow channels. Shallow enough that they don’t bother me. I have an obsession with keeping things clean especially around the kitchen, so creases and straight edges annoy me because I feel like there is always dirt stuck in it and I can’t fully clean it. The depth of these channels is just right to keep them clean. “This knife is perfect” I immediately told Val, “Where did you get it?”. At this point, I should mention that I was in Europe, my second time actually, so naturally I was expecting some exotic answer, some European designer or brand. I wasn’t all that wrong. Turns out the knife is sold by the Swedish retailer IKEA for $8.99.
Now what is it about this knife exactly? As I mentioned before, the qualities that stand out for me are the material, the shape, and the weight. The material and the shape must play a very important part, after all, they are the only characteristics you see in the object. Stainless-steel is a very common material for objects around the kitchen. Actually, it’s a very common material for hospital objects as well. Stainless-steel carries an idea of clean. The name itself implies it: “stainless”. When I met the object, I thought of clean when I noticed the seamless design and the shallow channels but not immediately by the material. This association between the material and cleanliness must be so ingrained in our minds that it becomes an automatic assumption when we see stainless-steel: the object must be clean. Assigning this characteristic to the material is part of what Paul Hekkert and Elvin Karana call the Experience of Meaning.
This term is part of the three experiences one can undergo when encountering an object. According to their description, we attribute characteristics to materials to describe them. These characteristics can be part of the materials physical qualities or can be associated meanings. When thinking about stainless-steel, the idea of it being clean is a characteristic that corresponds to its physical entity therefore it is safe to think that it is a universal meaning that attracts me to the knife due to my obsession with cleanliness. On the other hand, there are other meanings I am attributing to the material based on my personal associations to it; meanings that might not correlate with Hekkert’s and Karana’s opinion. In their examples of what characteristics people assign to steel they imply metal is not welcoming due to its aesthetic quality of being cold. As opposed to warm objects, like wood, metal objects are perceived as cold and therefore not something we are attracted to. Seeing as I am in love with this object, I find it very welcoming. Per my associations, stainless steel is sleek, modern, elegant.
As I am thinking about these characteristics, I realize that these are attributes I associate with the material. This means that from that perspective I should be feeling this attraction to all things made of stainless-steel. I have since seen, or at least started noticing more often, other stainless-steel knives. Val even shared one design with me wrongfully assuming I would like it as well. This other knife had been designed by a recognized manufacturer in Sheffield, England that has been making knives for 150 years. In contrast to the IKEA knife, the Sheffield paring knife leaves me cold, proving Hekkert’s and Karana’s description of steel objects. The handle doesn’t provoke me to grab it. The handle is a rectangular shape with rounded corners and has an entirely smooth finish relying on the rigidness of the shape to function as the grip. This knife also consists of two parts rather than one. Despite being made entirely of one material and having a slope connecting the two sides, the knife doesn’t have that same congruous connection between them. The slope is steeper and ends abruptly once it meets the radius of the rounded rectangle. This is where most knives made entirely of stainless-steel fail for me: the handle. Either the shape looks uncomfortable, the texture hoards the attention, or it doesn’t feel like it’s part of the blade. For Val, the Sheffield knife and my knife have the one thing he looks for in knives other than the material: “that the heel of the knife be sharp rather than rounded. I don’t want to feel like they are treating me like a child that needs scissors with the rounded tip”.
This brings me to think about the shape in the same way as the material, applying the Experience of Meaning theory. As I described before, the IKEA knife has an organic, congruous, and continuous shape, that calls me to grab it. Translating that to theory language, the organic shape of the knife is ingrained in our biology to attract us. Just like they describe wood to be universally warm and therefore seen as welcoming, organic shapes are universally seen as natural and therefore attractive to us. Maybe this is where the meaning of the material as being cold is overwritten by the shape. Without the organic shape, other knives are cold to me.
The third characteristic I experienced with the knife is its weight. And as I mentioned before, the immediate reaction is to notice how perfectly balanced it is. Now weight is directly associated with the ergonomics of an object. Ergonomics by definition means that an object’s design is thought to fit the anatomy of the human body and in the case of knives, the hand’s anatomy. Clearly this knife is nailing this design application. The fact that it is balanced immediately makes me think that it must be heavy enough to perform its function well. Obviously, this presumption (later confirmed), attracts one to an object. An object that does its job is the ideal object, so ideal that an object, no matter how beautiful, if it does not work it is often dismissed.
So what is it about this knife then? Well, if I think about the three properties I mentioned: material, shape and weight, obviously all three elements make the object what it is. But if I were to remove any of these qualities, I should be able to see which one of these carries the essence of the object for me. I have already mentioned that the material alone is not decisive for me to say that it is special as I find all other stainless-steel knives I’ve encountered to be cold. The weight is part of its function, so if it didn’t have this weight then it wouldn’t function properly and I would obviously dismiss it. On that note, the material also plays an important role in the function of the knife. It comes down to the shape; the shape seems to be connected to my biological nature of attraction to organic shapes. If I were to have a wooden letter opener with the same shape, including the shallow channels and everything, would I love it just as much? Probably not as much since it doesn’t have the added values of the stainless-steel meaning for me but I think I would really admire it and probably buy it even though I don’t use a letter opener. Maybe if I had that letter opener, I would use it just like I use my knife because I don’t like cooking; I like using my knife.
Pressing. Tapping. Stroking. Sliding. Slicing. Pushing. Pulling. The immediate reactions to our hand’s actions are so satisfying. The sounds are so important. The tapping of a key on a keyboard. The immediate sound feedback and the slight level of pressure needed to press the key. As a kid, I would play around my parent’s computers testing out their different keyboards. When I would go to electronic stores, I would test out the keyboards. In school, I would pick the calculators based on the way the keys felt. Once I got my first phone, I loved the way the keys felt. Touch screens can’t compare.
Fidgeting has become such a trend lately. Something we had never seen before suddenly was sold everywhere. Everyone had a fidget spinner. While the Fidget spinner causes a visual response to our touch, digital cameras give us a sound. When we take a picture with our smartphones, or even other digital cameras, there is an option to add the shutter sound. Digital cameras don’t have a shutter like film cameras do but the designers decided there is still value in the sound. Then there’s the combination of sound and visual. When we cross off an item on a To-Do list, there’s a level of satisfaction that parallels having accomplished the task on the list. When we cross with pen and paper, we get the sound of the mark on the paper and we get the visual of the ink following the tool we are moving. When we check off an item on a digital To-Do list, we are simply tapping on a flat screen. We get a visual response as a check mark appears but we don’t get the sound and more so, we don’t get the tactile complexity of the analog world.
Sound feedback is important for us to know if something is safe or alarming. When something stops working, we get sound feedback. Hear the knees crack when you stand up, telling you that you need to move more. The paper jam sound. A flat tire. These sounds communicate a problem and we can quickly understand it. When something is working, we can also hear it. We associate these sounds as pleasing. The smooth roar of an engine, a well running printer, the closing of a car door.
The importance of tactility is the reason why I decided to make the Labyrinth an analog object. Could I be able to reach the same concept through an app? Most probably. Nowadays, everything can be made into an app. But the tactile experience is another factor that connects us to objects. A satisfying sensorial experience invites us to repeat it. This is precisely the relationship I want the user to have with the Labyrinth.
In order to help create an attachment, I have chosen materials because of their aesthetic value and social associations.
Every decision was based on a balance between playful and mature. That’s precisely why, in the visual aesthetics, I decided for a marriage between organic and geometric shapes. When it came to material selection, this marriage took the form of wood and metal. Wood is immediately associated with warmth and inviting. While metal has social associations with elegance and sophistication, it’s also cold. To balance that, I picked brass for its warm and uplifting color.
The wood also adds another aesthetic value, in the form of sound. The tunnel sections in the paths emit a soothing echo as the stones roll down their paths.
All together, these elements provide an association of preciousness to the object. The Labyrinth becomes warm, elegant, inviting, soothing, sophisticated, intimate. This preciousness can create an attachment to the Labyrinth, since it becomes something valuable and important to the user.