The Different Roles of Product Appearance in. Consumer Choice

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1 The Different Roles of Product Appearance in Consumer Choice Mariëlle E.H. Creusen and Jan P.L. Schoormans * Running title: Product Appearance and Consumer Choice * Mariëlle E.H. Creusen is Assistant Professor of Consumer Research and Jan P.L. Schoormans is Professor of Consumer Research at Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. Address: Address correspondence to Mariëlle E.H. Creusen, Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, Department of Product Innovation and Management, Landbergstraat 15, 2628 CE Delft, The Netherlands. 1

2 The Different Roles of Product Appearance in Consumer Choice Biographical Sketches Mariëlle E.H. Creusen is Assistant Professor of Consumer Research at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. She received her M.Sc. in economic psychology from Tilburg University and her Ph.D. from Delft University of Technology. She has published in journals such as the International Journal of Research in Marketing and Advances in Consumer Research. Her current research interests include the influence of product appearance factors on consumer product preference, and consumer research methods in product development. Jan P.L. Schoormans is Professor of Consumer Research at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. He received his M.Sc. and Ph.D. in economic psychology from Tilburg University. He has published in journals such as the Journal of Product Innovation Management, Design Studies, the International Journal of Research in Marketing, the Journal of Economic Psychology, and Advances in Consumer Research. His current research interests include consumer research methods in the product development process. 2

3 The Different Roles of Product Appearance in Consumer Choice Abstract Product design has been recognized as an opportunity for differential advantage in the market place. The appearance of a product influences consumer product choice in several ways. To help product development managers in optimizing the appearance of products, we identified the different ways in which the appearance of a product plays a role in consumer product evaluation, and hence, choice. In addition, we list the implications for product design of each role, and give managerial recommendations for optimizing the appearance of products. Based on a literature review, six different roles of product appearance for consumers are identified: communication of aesthetic, symbolic, functional and ergonomic information, attention drawing and categorization. A product s appearance can have aesthetic and symbolic value for consumers, communicate functional characteristics and give a quality impression (functional value), and communicate ease of use (ergonomic value). In addition, it can draw attention and influence the ease of categorization of the product. In a large qualitative study (N = 142) we tested whether these roles indeed exist in consumers process of product choice, and whether they are sufficient to describe the way in which product appearance plays a role for consumers. In addition, we gained qualitative insight into these roles. After making a choice between two answering machines, subjects were interviewed about the reasons for their choice and the product information they used to form the judgments underlying their choice reasons. The six appearance roles indeed proved relevant for consumers and were sufficient to describe the influence of product appearance on product choice. The number of ways in which appearance played a role for consumers differed between zero and five, most subjects mentioned two different ways in which appearance influenced their product choice. The aesthetic and symbolic roles were mentioned most often. The preferred shape (e.g., rounded or angular), color or size were found to differ depending on the way in which product appearance played a role for subjects. For example, bright colors may be valued from an aesthetic point of view, but may diminish the impression of quality (i.e., functional value). This makes it difficult to optimize all roles and illustrates that the product value that is most important for consumers when purchasing a specific kind of product should be the starting-point in the design of the product appearance. Furthermore, the influence of shape, color, or size on a certain kind of product value aesthetic, symbolic, ergonomic or functional differed between subjects. One person likes a rounded shape, while another prefers a rectangular shape. This means that the value of guidelines indicating how the perception of a specific kind of product value can be engendered by means of shape, color and size is limited. This is especially the case for aesthetic and symbolic product value, which are very personal. Therefore it is recommendable to test the performance of the appearance of a newly-developed product on these six roles with the target group of consumers. Insight into the different ways in which appearance characteristics, such as form and color, may influence consumer choice will increase managers awareness about how to use product appearance as a marketing tool. In addition, distinguishing these six appearance roles will help product development managers to better optimize the product appearance to market needs, as the roles have different and sometimes even conflicting implications for the design of the product appearance. 3

4 Introduction Product design is an opportunity for differential advantage in the market place (e.g., Hammer, 1995; Kotler and Rath, 1984; Löbach, 1976; Lorenz, 1986; Pilditch, 1976; Veryzer, 1995). A number of companies successfully focus on product design as a competitive tool (see e.g., Dumaine, 1991; Nussbaum, 1993; Smith, 1994). Several studies indicate the influence of good product design on commercial success (e.g., Black and Baker, 1987; Bruce and Whitehead, 1988; Gemser and Leenders, 2001; Roy, 1994; Thackara, 1997). Yamamoto and Lambert (1994) showed that even for industrial products, appearance has an influence on product preference. But what does this mean in practice? Which product design will lead to commercial success? To be able to define some guidelines that can be used in new product development, it is necessary to look at the role of product design in consumer evaluation. First, it must be recognized that this role is complex and diverse. There are a number of ways in which product design influences consumer preference (Bloch, 1995). The design of a product determines consumers first impression of the product and can quickly communicate product advantage. In addition, the design of a product will generate consumer inferences regarding several product attributes (Berkowitz, 1987; Bloch, 1995; Pilditch, 1976). Furthermore, product appearance can provide value in itself; many people like to buy a product that looks aesthetically pleasing. As the influence of product design on consumer evaluation is often complex, it is difficult to decide upon during the product development process. For example, a product with bright colors may be valued aesthetically, but these same colors may give consumers the idea that the product is of low quality. To be able to give guidelines for design following from its influence on consumer product evaluations, it is necessary to first answer the question of what exactly constitutes the value of a product design for consumers. In order to answer this question, we shall start with an overview of the different roles of the product design in the purchase decision of consumers. More precisely, we will describe the influence of what consumers see of the product, that is, its exterior, in making a purchase decision. We therefore use the term product appearance instead of product design, as the design of a product also refers to product parts that consumers cannot see (i.e., the interior of the product). On the basis of a literature review and a large qualitative study, we describe the implications of these roles for product design and product development. Product Appearance and Consumer Product Evaluation: A literature Review In this section we will describe the roles of product appearance in the process of consumer evaluation and choice. For this aim, we have searched literature in the fields of product development, product design, consumer behavior, marketing and human factors. The literature shows that the visual appearance of a product can influence consumer product evaluations and choice in several ways. Several authors considered the role of product or package appearance in consumer product evaluation or choice (Bloch, 1995; Garber, 1995; Garber et al., 2000; Veryzer, 1993; Veryzer, 1995). However, they did not explicitly discuss the different ways in which appearance influences consumer choice and their respective implications for product design. In addition to these more recent contributions to the literature, the functions of a product in consumer-product interaction are described in earlier industrial design literature (Löbach, 1976; Pilditch, 1976; Schürer, 1971). Several of these functions concern product appearance. There are differences between authors in the number of roles (i.e., functions) of product appearance that 4

5 they distinguish and the terms they use. For example, communication of ease of use is mentioned by Bloch (1995) and described as part of the aesthetic function by Löbach (1976), while Veryzer (1995) calls it the communicative function of a product appearance. If we take all the roles mentioned in the literature together, the following six roles of product appearance for consumers can be distinguished: communication of aesthetic, symbolic, functional, and ergonomic product information, attention drawing and categorization. We will describe these six roles and their implications for product design below. Product Appearance and Aesthetic Product Value The aesthetic value of a product pertains to the pleasure derived from seeing the product, without consideration of utility (Holbrook, 1980). A consumer can value the look of a product purely for its own sake, as looking at something beautiful is rewarding in itself. When product alternatives are similar in functioning and price, consumers will prefer the one that appeals the most to them aesthetically (see for example Figure 1). Aesthetic responses are primarily emotional or feeling responses and, as such, they are very personal (Bamossy et al., 1983). Insert Figure 1 about here Several researchers have tried to determine properties of products that are related to aesthetic appreciation. Innate preferences are proposed for visual organization principles, such as unity (i.e., congruence in elements), proportion (e.g., the Golden Section ), and symmetry (Hekkert, 1995; Muller, 2001; Veryzer, 1993; Veryzer and Hutchinson, 1998), and an inverted U-shaped relation is proposed between aesthetic preference and complexity (Berlyne, 1971). Another property influencing aesthetic judgments is color. The desirability of a color will change according to the object to which it is applied (e.g., a car or a table), and with the style of the object (e.g., Modern or Georgian ) (Whitfield and Wiltshire, 1983). In addition to (innate) preferences for certain properties of stimuli, prototypicality is found to influence the aesthetic response. Prototypicality is the degree to which something is representative of a category (see also the section about categorization). In several studies, evidence is found for a positive influence of visual prototypicality on aesthetic preference (Hekkert, 1995; Veryzer and Hutchinson, 1998; Whitfield and Slatter, 1979). According to Hekkert et al. (2003), products with an optimal combination of prototypicality and novelty are aesthetically preferred. As well as the product-related characteristics mentioned above, there are cultural, social and personal influences on design taste. For example, color preferences differ between cultures and in time (Whitfield and Wiltshire, 1983). In addition, personal factors, such as design acumen, prior experience and personality influence the design taste of consumers (Bloch, 1995). The influence of an aesthetic judgment on product preference can be moderated by the perceived aesthetic fit of the product with other products that the consumer owns, or his or her home interior (Bloch, 1995). Consumers may like a product s appearance per se, but not buy it because it does not aesthetically fit into their home interior. 5

6 Product Appearance and Symbolic Product Value Consumer goods carry and communicate symbolic meaning (McCracken, 1986). Symbolic value can even be the key determinant for product selection (Hirschman and Holbrook, 1982), and account for the selection of products that are clearly inferior in their tangible characteristics (Levy, 1959). An example of the latter is Philippe Starck s Juicy Salif lemon squeezer (Lloyd and Snelders, 2003). The choice for a specific product or brand may convey the kind of person you are or want to be; consumers use products to express their (ideal) self-image to themselves and to others (Belk, 1988; Landon, 1974; Sirgy, 1982; Solomon, 1983). Symbolic meaning can be coupled to a product or brand on the basis of, amongst other things, advertising (McCracken, 1986), country of origin, or the kind of people using it (Sirgy, 1982). But the product itself can also communicate symbolic value in a more direct way, namely by its appearance. A product s appearance communicates messages (Murdoch and Flurscheim, 1983), as it may look cheerful, boring, friendly, expensive, rude, or childish (see, for example, Figure 2). Insert Figure 2 about here In addition, a certain style of appearance may evoke associations with a certain time or place (e.g., the fifties ). Furthermore, the product or package appearance can reinforce the image of a brand, as the identity of a brand is visually expressed in the appearance of products (Schmitt and Simonson, 1997). Consumers may couple the meaning of a brand to elements of the physical appearance of products. In this way, a brand image may transfer to different kinds of products (see the section about categorization). Many companies therefore make consistent use of certain design elements, such as a color combination, a distinctive form element or style. For example, car manufacturers often try to keep different car models recognizable as belonging to the same brand. The distinctive radiator grill of BMW automobiles is an example of a recognizable design element. The linking of brand meaning to elements of the product appearance will be easier when the associations that these elements engender by themselves (e.g., because they are innate or determined by culture) correspond to the desired brand image. For example, use of bright colors and a large size, which is associated with aggression (Murdoch and Flurscheim, 1983), will make it easier to position a car brand as aggressive. Although there are large individual and time specific differences in the experience of color and form, there are certain associations that seem to be relatively constant. Overviews of the influence of form and color on consumer perception of symbolic value (but also ergonomic and aesthetic value) can be found in Muller (2001), Murdoch and Flurscheim (1983), Schmitt and Simonson (1997), and Whitfield and Wiltshire (1983). For example, angular forms are associated with dynamism and masculinity, while roundness evokes softness and femininity (Schmitt and Simonson, 1997). Culture is an important determinant of the interpretations that consumers give and the associations that they have with certain factors of a product s appearance. For example, color associations vary from culture to culture (Whitfield and Wiltshire, 1983). In America and Europe, white stands for purity and brides traditionally are dressed in white, while in Japan it is a color of mourning. Furthermore, meaning is context dependent. The impression that colors give may change completely by combining certain colors (Muller, 2001). Also, the meaning of forms 6

7 and colors may change in time, as meanings are continuously transformed by movements in art, fashion, etcetera (Muller, 2001). There is some debate about whether symbolic interpretation is part of the aesthetic experience. In most literature, aesthetic value is mentioned as both a hedonic impression and a result of interpretation and representation (Schmitt and Simonson, 1997; Vihma, 1995). We acknowledge that whether a product is conceived of as beautiful is affected by what it represents (Vihma, 1995). The same style can be considered good taste at one point in time, while being considered bad taste ten years later, because the connotations associated with it or the interpretations given to it have changed. For example, orange was a modern color for clothes, furniture and (plastic) products in the seventies, was generally perceived as old-fashioned and ugly in the eighties, and became used in products and clothing again in the nineties. However, we feel that aesthetic and symbolic value should be distinguished, as they may have opposite influences on preference. For example, someone who likes a colorful design may not buy it because it looks too childish. Product Appearance and Functional Product Value The functional value of a product pertains to the utilitarian functions that a product can perform, to what you can use it for (Löbach, 1976; Veryzer, 1995). Products differ in the degree to which they are suited to perform their basic utilitarian function, such as communication or transportation, but also in quality (e.g., by the technology or materials used) and in features. For example, you can buy telephones with a re-dial and a hands-free option. The presence of such options influences the functional value of the product for consumers. As well as reading verbal product information or asking others, consumers may form an impression about utilitarian functions and product quality on the basis of a product s appearance (Bloch, 1995; Dawar and Parker, 1994). The utilitarian functions of a product can be directly obvious from its appearance. When you see a handle, you know the product is portable. In addition, product appearance can be used as a cue to infer more important but less readily accessible product attributes (Berkowitz, 1987; Dawar and Parker, 1994). For example, subjects may infer on first sight that a larger hairdryer has more power than a smaller one (see Figure 3). Or the appearance as a whole may communicate quality by looking reliable or solid (Srinivasan et al., 1997; Yamamoto and Lambert, 1994). Physical product appearance is an important quality signal for consumers (Dawar and Parker, 1994). As Dickson (1994, p.263) notes: There is also something intangible about quality. It resides in the feel, the look, the sound of an item. We may not be able to explain it, but we know it when we see it. So product appearance can be proactively used in order to give consumers a certain impression about the functional product value. Insert Figure 3 about here Product Appearance and Ergonomic Product Value The ergonomic value of a product (see Löbach, 1976; Schürer, 1971; Veryzer, 1995) entails the adjustment of a product to human qualities. Product ergonomics or human factors concerns the 7

8 comprehensibility and usability of a product, the suitability to perform and correctly communicate its utilitarian functions. Technical functions can be implemented in a product in a more or less easy to use manner. Usability entails cognitive aspects of use, such as how logical a product is to operate, as well as emotional aspects, in that it is not frustrating in operation and gives an enjoyable usage experience (March, 1994). Consumers may form an impression about the ease of use on the basis of the product appearance (e.g., Norman, 1988). Consumers have to experience the operation of a product in order to adequately judge it. As consumers often cannot try out products in a shop or when buying on the Internet, they will use the product appearance to form an indication of the ergonomic product value (see also Bloch, 1995). By seeing the product, people form an impression about whether handles are easy and pleasant to hold, and whether buttons will be easy to use (see Figure 4). In order to influence consumer preference positively, it is not sufficient that a product be simply easy to use. Consumers must also perceive the product to be easy to use. The appearance of the product influences consumer perception of aspects such as ease of operation, weight and stability, which affect the perceived ease of use of a product. For example, an upright-shaped product may be designed in such a way that it cannot fall over in normal use, but consumers may conclude that it is not stable after seeing it (see Murdoch and Flurscheim, 1983). Based on this first impression, they may discard the product. Another example is that a small number of controls (such as buttons) makes a product look easy to use (Norman, 1988). Insert Figure 4 about here Attention Drawing Ability of the Product Appearance Gaining attention is an important first step in enabling consumer product purchase. Attention is the allocation of information processing capacity to a stimulus (Engel et al., 1995). When a product stands out visually from competitive products, chances are higher that consumers will pay attention to the product in a purchase situation, as it catches their eye. For food products, the attention-drawing ability of a package has been found to heighten the probability of purchase (Garber, 1995; Garber et al., 2000). In general, the attention-drawing ability of a product can be enhanced by increasing its size and by using bright colors. Furthermore, people attend to stimuli that contrast with their background and are novel, that is, unusual or unexpected (see Engel et al., 1995). Garber (1995) emphasizes that the visual effect of a product package is relative to a background comprised of competitor alternatives. For example, the Philips Billy handmixer (see Figure 5, second one from the left) draws attention by its bright colors, that differ from the typical white and other light colors used in this product category. So in order to design an eye-catching appearance, product alternatives available on the market and perhaps even the purchase environment should be taken into account. Insert Figure 5 about here 8

9 Product Appearance and Categorization Consumers may use product appearance for categorization (Bloch, 1995; Veryzer, 1995). The appearance of a product can influence the ease with which a product is categorized, and the category to which it will be assigned. Product identification will be easier when a product resembles other products in the same category, that is, when it is more prototypical of the category (Loken and Ward, 1990). With respect to product appearance, this means that it should be more visually typical. Garber (1995) defines visual typicality as the look or appearance that most consumers would associate with a product category, and by which they identify brands that belong to the category. When a product is difficult to categorize based on its appearance, consumers may not regard the product as a purchase alternative. For example, there might be some consumers who do not notice that the Philips Alessi coffee maker, with its atypical appearance, is a coffee maker (see Figure 6, right picture). Insert Figure 6 about here Using verbal product descriptions, Meyers-Levy and Tybout (1989) found that products that differ slightly from the prototype are evaluated more positively than products that are either very typical or very atypical. Schoormans and Robben (1997) confirmed this for package appearances; a slightly atypical appearance catches attention from consumers, while remaining acceptable to them. So in general, an appearance that differs slightly from the prototype will be preferred. In some cases, however, strong differentiation from or strong similarity to the prototype or another product alternative will be a beneficial strategy. We will treat these cases below. For products for which prestige, exclusiveness or novelty are important, an atypical appearance is advisable. For such products, preference declines when it becomes more widely available and thus more typical, as uniqueness is valued (Ward and Loken, 1988). An atypical appearance is also advisable when a product has to be differentiated from other products in the category, for example when there are many competing alternatives. Strong differentiation may even lead consumers to first consider the product as a member of its own individual class (Rosch et al., 1976, p.434). Also, new functional attributes are better communicated by an atypical appearance. Differentiation from the category decreases comparison with other products from the category. As a result, distinguishing features are better noticed and found more important (Sujan and Bettman, 1989). For example, the Dyson vacuum cleaner differs in its appearance from the prototypical vacuum cleaner, so that consumers more easily perceive its unique mechanism (see Figure 7). Insert Figure 7 about here On the other hand, when consumers do not find the purchase important or interesting, a typical appearance is advisable (Alba and Hutchinson, 1987). Typical members of a category tend to be classified more quickly and accurately (see Loken and Ward, 1990). Therefore, 9

10 consumers tend to buy typical category members in low-involvement purchases, as they want to minimize their effort (Hoyer, 1984). One can also design the appearance of a product to resemble another, well-known and positively valued product alternative. This heightens the probability that people evaluate the product based on knowledge about, or affect towards, the product it resembles, which is called exemplar based categorization (Cohen and Basu, 1987). This strategy may be beneficial when there is one dominant brand in the category with which it is difficult to compete. Similarity to a category prototype or a known exemplar may provide consumers with expectations about certain product attributes, and thereby about the functional, ergonomic, aesthetic and/or symbolic value of the product. Based on previous experience with Sony products, one may for example assume that new Sony products are easy to operate, without evaluating the ease of operation of the specific product at hand. However, category-based evaluations occur less often for durables than for fast-moving consumer goods (Olshavsky and Spreng, 1996). So for durables, consumers will tend to process the available information, instead of deriving a judgment from categorization only. Product Appearance and Consumers Choice Reasons: An Extensive Qualitative Study In a qualitative study we investigated whether the six roles of product appearance for consumers that we distinguished on the basis of the literature review do indeed exist in consumers product choices. In addition, we assessed whether these six roles sufficiently describe the way in which consumers use product appearance in making a product choice, or whether additional roles should be distinguished. Furthermore, we gained qualitative insight into these roles, as we looked at the inferences consumers make from aspects of the product appearance, the extent of difference in consumer product perceptions based on product appearance, and the extent to which these roles are interrelated. As we used a relatively large number of respondents in this qualitative study, we were able to quantify results. Research Method In a laboratory setting, subjects made a choice between two product alternatives, after which they were interviewed about the reasons underlying their choice. These choice reasons, and the information on which they are based, are the focus of the study. Subjects. Subjects (N = 146) were selected from a consumer household panel. About half of them are male, ages range from 18 to 65. Stimuli. The products used were telephone answering machines. Three answering machines were bought, of which a subset of two was presented to each subject. In this way there were three different choice sets; each of them was presented to about one-third of the sample. The products themselves were placed in front of subjects, with accompanying cards showing textual information about four functional product characteristics derived from product catalogues and instore information (see Figure 8). This agrees with the way in which durable products are generally presented in a purchase situation. Insert Figure 8 about here 10

11 Procedure. First, subjects read a description of the basic functionality of an answering machine. This ensured that they at least knew what the product basically can be used for, as can be expected of a person buying one. Two answering machines were placed in front of the subject, who was asked not to touch (and thus possibly open) the product. The subject made a product choice by indicating the answering machine that he or she would be most likely to buy. After that, an interview into the choice reasons was conducted and recorded on audiotape. The interviewer first gathered all the subject s choice reasons, after which she probed further into each separate reason to be clear about the subject s precise meaning, why he or she valued the product attribute concerned, and what information he or she used to make the attribute judgment. Because of the large number of interviews, two interviewers were used (one of them performed about two-thirds of the total number of interviews). The total procedure took about 20 minutes, after which each subject received a written debriefing and a small monetary compensation. Analysis and Results The interviews into the choice reasons were fully transcribed. These transcriptions were the basis for data-analysis. Data of 142 subjects were used (a total of four subjects either possessed one of the products from their choice set, had handled the products against instructions, or did not understand the basic use of an answering machine). Two judges (of which one was also an interviewer) independently categorized each subject s considerations that played a role in the product choice and were based on the product appearance (i.e., were not based on the card information). Choice reasons that did not fit into one of the categories were assigned to a remaining category. There were not many differences between the judges, and these were discussed until an agreement was reached. The six roles of the product appearance communication of aesthetic, symbolic, functional, and ergonomic product information, attention drawing and categorization proved sufficient to categorize all choice reasons that were based on product appearance. There were a few reasons that did not fit into the six categories of appearance roles. However, these reasons concerned textual information drawn from the appearance, such as brand name or the language of the words underneath the buttons (i.e., in Dutch versus in English). The relative importance of the appearance roles differed between subjects. Some subjects valued aesthetics the most, while others found functionalities or quality far more important. Age did not influence the frequency of mentioning a specific appearance role, gender only influenced concern about whether the product fit with the home interior and attention drawing (see the aesthetic role and attention drawing role below). A number of subjects considered one product alternative superior with respect to one kind of product value (e.g., aesthetic value), and the other alternative with respect to another kind of product value (e.g., ergonomic value). As a result, they had to choose between two or more kinds of product value, most often functional and aesthetic value. For example, one subject chose the digital product although she liked the appearance of the other product better. Some subjects had to choose between aesthetic value and ergonomic value, and for example chose the attractive-looking product although the other product looked easier to operate. In total, 19 subjects chose product alternative D, 49 subjects chose F, and 74 subjects preferred G (see Figure 8). We will now describe the results for each of the six roles separately. The quotations are 11

12 translated from Dutch by the authors. Keep in mind that one subject can mention several different choice reasons, and also several choice reasons belonging to one category. The number of appearance roles mentioned by subjects varies from one to five, the Mode is two. Figure 9 shows the percentage of subjects mentioning each number of product appearance roles. Subjects mentioning zero appearance roles based their choice on the card information. Figure 10 shows the percentage of subjects that mentioned each of the different appearance roles. Insert Figure 9 about here Insert Figure 10 about here Aesthetic role. This role was mentioned most often: sixty-five percent of the subjects (92) mentioned an attractive product appearance as a choice reason. An additional ten percent mentioned the attractiveness of the appearance, but did not base their choice on it because other aspects were more important to them. Aspects mentioned to play a role in the aesthetic attractiveness are overall roundedness, size, color and specific details. Several subjects found it difficult to indicate why they found a specific product more aesthetically attractive, as it was an instinctive judgment. Fourty-five percent of all subjects (64) liked a rounded product, that is, alternative F or G, which looked modern to them. They perceived this as suiting the contemporary design trend, as many modern products are rounded (e.g., cars, car stereos). For example, one subject said: And you also see that with a lot of audio equipment. All that has a more rounded design than previously, really. Only very few subjects mentioned disliking a rounded shape; one of them said: I personally don t like rounded sides and such things.. a bit trendy. Many subjects disliked alternative D because it is rectangular and straight. Only three subjects liked such a shape. Many subjects (12) aesthetically preferred a smaller, compact product, as a larger product is ungainly and obtrusive. Many subjects considered alternative D to be too big. For example, one subject said: I really liked the shape of that small one. I found the other one a bit.. yes, if you place it in your room, not so.. a bit crude. I do not like all those big things in my room. Several (8) subjects mentioned the closed impression of alternative F. Alternative G looks more open, as it has a display and a bigger button. Half of these subjects liked this closed look, as it makes the product a compact whole. As one subject said: I found that G still has something cosy about it, also because of the display, I think, and that other one was such a closed whole. The other half disliked a closed impression, because it looks less friendly and sympathetic. One subject for example said: Well, that appliance totally was a closed box, such a black box, and that other one made at least a, yes.. a bit more of a friendly impression, it seemed to look a bit more open. Subjects (32) preferred a certain color because they liked it better or because it fits into their home environment. One subject for example said: so I picture it next to the black couch and the black telephone, then that thing completely fits in. Several subjects wanted a dark or black color, some a neutral or soft color. Also, several subjects (10) preferred a product in one color as 12

13 opposed to multiple colors (referring to alternative D with its two-colored casing and white buttons), as this makes the product a unified whole and looks more tranquil. For example, one subject said about alternative D: The buttons also attracted a little attention, in my opinion, because they had a different color. It just isn t a whole. Some subjects mentioned visual organization principles as a basis for their aesthetic preference. Unity was mentioned by a few subjects, referring to the use of one instead of more colors (see the quotation in the paragraph above). Symmetry was mentioned by one subject, who said: and in addition it was symmetrical, say, in its length. I also always like that a bit myself. Many subjects (33, or 23.2%) mentioned details that played a role in their aesthetic judgments, often only after the interviewer probed for this. Some (6) liked the little purple button on alternative F, as it is funny and playful. Nine subjects disliked the buttons on alternative D, as they lie on top of the product, while integrated buttons (on alternative F and G) make a product smoother. The obtrusiveness of the buttons on alternative D is reinforced by their contrasting white color. Some subjects liked or disliked the presence of a display from an aesthetic point of view, or chose the product with a more attractive display. For example, one subject said: such a display with numbers, I don t need that.. that doesn t look nice in my opinion. Some idiosyncratic reasons concerned, for example, the size of the holes in the grid in front of the loudspeaker, and the material. Twenty-four subjects (16.9%) mentioned that the product had to fit aesthetically into their home environment or with other products they already own (such as their telephone). For this reason, many of these subjects valued a dark or neutral-colored product, and a modern-looking product (only two subjects found that a less modern answering machine suited their homes better). For example, one subject said that the other answering machine would fit less into my home interior (referring to alternative D). She further explained: because we have a modern interior design with black furniture. Females more often mentioned the aesthetic fit into their home as a choice reason than males (χ² = 4.68, p <.05). Symbolic role. Almost half of all subjects (68, or 47.9%) mentioned that the symbolic meaning or associations of the product appearance played a role in their product choice. Additionally, some subjects considered symbolic aspects, but found other aspects more important on which to base their choice. Almost all subjects mentioning symbolic aspects mention it as part of an aesthetic judgment; only some mentioned a modern, friendly or serious look as a choice reason without explicitly calling it aesthetically attractive. So symbolic and aesthetic value were often intertwined. Symbolic associations that were mentioned by several subjects are expensive or cheap, playful, friendly, businesslike, soft, sympathetic, boring and hi-tech. Several subjects (6) mention that alternative D gives a cheap impression, because of its crude and simple shape. One subject notes: Look, obviously straight shapes are easier to manufacture. Therefore I interpret them as cheaper. Many subjects (38) mentioned a modern or contemporary (alternative F or G) versus an old-fashioned or even obsolete impression (alternative D) as a choice reason. A lot of these subjects mentioned that roundedness or a streamlined shape brings about this modern look. This roundedness also made alternative F and G look friendly, sympathetic and soft. In contrast, the rectangular straight product (alternative D) looked old-fashioned, ungainly, bombastic, harsh and cheap to subjects. They associated alternative D with an old cassette player, a cigar-box, a box of bricks and a bread-tin. Many mention alternative F as resembling a portable CD player or Discman, which some find funny and which gives it a contemporary look. For example, one subject mentioned that alternative D reminds him of an old-fashioned cassette player, while 13

14 alternative F reminds me much more of a modern car radio. In addition to the associations mentioned above, other associations evoked by alternative F are: playful, female, cute with that sweet little purple button, elegant, refined, chic, more sexy, yuppie-like, flowing, more funny, more hi-tech-like, but also business-like and boring. Specific remarks referring to alternative G were: cosier, less boring, more flair, playful, more serious, common. Functional role. Many subjects (49.3%) based their product choice on the textual information about functionalities that was presented with the products on cards. However, for 18 subjects (12.7%) the appearance influenced the perceived functional product value. Five subjects (3.5% of the total sample) derived information about functionalities from the product appearance, namely the presence of a display or a small indication light. One subject based her choice on the fact that she saw a rewind button on alternative G, which she did not see on alternative F. In addition, two subjects explicitly mentioned wanting as few features as possible. According to them, these bells and whistles make the product more vulnerable so that it will break down more easily, while you often do not use them anyway. Eleven subjects (7.8% of the sample) derived an impression about the reliability and durability of the product from its appearance. They chose the product that looks more solid or reliable (most often alternative G), so that it would last longer. Some subjects found it difficult to specify the characteristics responsible for this; a few mentioned that it was their first impression or something instinctive. Nevertheless, several subjects mentioned elements that engendered this impression, such as a flap or display that could easily break, a turning instead of sliding volume button, a large size, or the roundedness or rather the squareness of the product. For example, one subject said about alternative G: It looked more reliable, a bit more solid. It was a bit larger. He explained why it looked more solid: The size was decisive.. maybe the shape, it was broader than the other one. A few subjects inferred from its modern styling (referring to the more rounded shape of alternative F or G) that the product was technologically superior, as it had been designed more recently. The following part of an interview illustrates why one subject prefers a modern-looking answering machine: Yes, maybe it will last longer that way, [it] looks more reliable.. the other one [alternative D] looks as if it is prehistoric, as if it is out of date or something, that is the impression it makes.. old. However, another subject preferred alternative D for its more functional appearance, as he thought that most often with these futuristic products, they look slick and finished, but they are usually not really solid. (referring to alternative F). Ergonomic role. About one-third of the subjects (51, which is 35.9%) mentioned reasons concerning usability as a basis for their choice. Of these, 34 subjects mentioned operational aspects, such as the visibility of the display, or the size, number, clarity or placing of the buttons. For example, one subject who chose alternative G instead of F, said: and also the buttons on it, they were just a bit more clear, just one button to play and rewind etcetera. The other one, it had one button, but it did not exactly say what it was for. Several subjects found the buttons of alternative D clear and the button of alternative F too small, although several others preferred alternative G or F to D because it had one instead of two buttons on top. Nine subjects wanted a product with as few buttons as possible; according to them, more buttons are only confusing and heighten the likelihood of making mistakes. As one subject said: the more simple the design, the less easily it will break down.. and a lot of buttons, that is simply confusing. A few subjects preferred a separate button for each function instead of one button having several functions. Seven subjects preferred alternative G because you could immediately see how it works; it had clear buttons that were clearly labeled so that the possibilities were clear, while alternative F was 14

15 closed so that how it works was not obvious from the way it looks (see Figure 8). Two subjects preferred the product alternative that operates similar to their own answering machine. In addition to operational aspects, more general aspects of use were mentioned. Such general aspects are not related to the direct operation of the product, but to more indirect consequences of use, such as the space needed by the product (e.g., whether it fits on a table), the ease of cleaning, or the likelihood of accidentally hurting someone. Fourteen subjects valued a small size (i.e., alternative G or F instead of D) because a small product needs less space and is easier to hide in a drawer. Four subjects chose alternative D because it is square instead of rounded, and therefore fits more easily into a corner or in-between other things. In contrast, two subjects valued a rounded product (alternative F or G) as it is easier to handle and is less likely to hurt someone (i.e., no sharp edges). One subject mentioned that buttons that are integrated into the surface make the product easier to handle, and another subject found this easier to clean. They therefore did not choose alternative D with its protruding buttons. Attention drawing role. Of the fourteen subjects (9.9% of the total sample) who mentioned the attention-drawing ability of one of the product alternatives, thirteen preferred the less attention-drawing alternative (alternative F or G, see Figure 8). Almost all of them found alternative D to be too conspicuous because it was too big and its buttons were in a contrasting color. They preferred a product that would be less conspicuous in their home, or as one subject called it: harmless in the interior of my home. Another subject stated that an answering machine is a functional product that strictly speaking, you do not want to see. Therefore, these subjects preferred a smaller product, that can be easily put away, and has a more neutral color. Only one subject chose the product that drew her attention by its design. She explained her preference for the appearance of alternative G as follows: Well, it is more like a whole, the impression it makes on me, does it attract my attention and does it satisfy my wishes. Another subject stated that although she chose the less attention-drawing product, she might buy a specially designed product that draws a lot of attention but looks very attractive at the same time. Females significantly more often mention attention drawing as a choice reason than males (χ² = 8.80, p <.01). Categorization role. Eleven subjects (7.8%) mentioned visual categorization as playing a role in their product choice. Categorization may also have a subconscious influence, and thus may have played a role for more subjects, but the remarks of these eleven subjects give us some insight into how visual categorization plays a role for consumers. A few subjects mentioned prefering alternative G because it is more recognizable as an answering machine, that is, easy to categorize, but found it difficult to explain why. For example, one subject explained why she liked the appearance of alternative G better than F: I found it more recognizable, the other one, that looked like.. what is it called?.. a CD player. Well, in my eyes it looks more like an answering machine. Others preferred something different from a standard box, something more special that does not look ordinary (i.e., is less prototypical). Two subjects explicitly mentioned prefering a product that is less recognizable as an answering machine, less plain. Subjects valuing a nontypical product chose alternative F or G. One subject said:.. I would in first instance consider the one I chose as a portable CD player instead of an answering machine, so in that sense somewhat less recognizable as an answering machine. When asked whether and why he prefers this, he said: Well, I just like to.. in everything I buy.. to not pick the ordinary. Four subjects preferred alternative F or G because it reminded them of another product, namely a portable CD player or modern car radio. They found it difficult to explain why, but 15

16 thought that it was a kind of recognition; they were used to this look. For example, one subject said: That rounded one appeals to me, yes, I don t know why, maybe because it also looks a bit like a portable CD player or something,.. that appeals more to me. When asked why, she said: Maybe because it is a bit more familiar, I don t know... One subject disliked alternative D because it reminded him of an old-fashioned cassette player. Interrelations. In several cases, some roles were interrelated. Attention drawing and aesthetic value were often linked: subjects find an attention drawing product less aesthetically attractive. Indeed, the correlation between attention drawing and aesthetic choice reasons is significant (Spearman s rho =.25, p <.01). Furthermore, symbolic and aesthetic value were often intertwined. Subjects mention symbolic associations in explaining why they find the product aesthetically attractive, which agrees with Vihma (1995). Indeed, correlation analysis shows that aesthetic and symbolic reasons often co-occur (Spearman s rho =.54, p <.001). Also, for some subjects, symbolic and functional value were linked, as they felt that a modern-looking answering machine would be technologically superior. As this concerned only a small number of subjects, this is not expressed in a significant correlation between functional and symbolic choice reasons. However, there was a significant correlation between categorization and symbolic choice reasons (Spearman s rho =.20, p <.05), which is probably due to the fact that several subjects found that answering machine F looked modern or contemporary because it resembles a portable CD player (i.e., another product category). In addition, the correlation between categorization and aesthetic choice reasons was on the border of significance (Spearman s rho =.16, p =.05). This can be explained by the fact that subjects liked an appearance that looked or did not look like a typical answering machine. Conclusion and Discussion We distinguished six roles of product appearance for consumers on the basis of a literature review, and showed in a qualitative study that these roles are relevant for consumers and are sufficient to describe the influence of product appearance in consumer choice. In addition, we gained insight into the information that consumers use and the inferences they make from the appearance of a product. We give an overview of the roles and their influence on consumers in Table 1. Insert Table 1 about here Aesthetic value will often be important to consumers for durable products, as these products are often used for many years and visible in consumer s homes or to other people. Indeed, the majority of subjects in our study considered aesthetic value in their product choice and several subjects considered whether the product fitted aesthetically into their home. We even saw some subjects giving up functionalities in favor of aesthetic value. Our subjects mentioned roundedness, size, color and specific details as a basis for their aesthetic judgment, although some subjects found it difficult to verbalize why precisely a specific product alternative looked more attractive to them. In general, a small, rounded answering machine in one neutral, dark color was aesthetically preferred, although some subjects had different preferences. The fact that only very few subjects mentioned visual organization principles as causing their aesthetic preference is not surprising, as the influence of such principles will be largely unconscious 16

17 (Veryzer, 1999). Although prototypicality was not explicitly mentioned, many subjects preferred a rounded product because it suits the contemporary design trend, and as such is prototypical for contemporary products. Symbolic value was mentioned as a choice reason by almost half of our sample. Subjects mentioned several associations, such as expensive, friendly or businesslike. A modern or contemporary look was important to more than a quarter of the subjects. Aesthetic and symbolic value were often intertwined. For example, many subjects liked a rounded appearance because it looks modern and friendly. It may, however, be good to acknowledge the difference between these two kinds of product value. Someone might like a certain appearance, but not purchase it because the symbolic associations are not suited to his or her person (e.g., a childlike appearance for an adult) or to the occasion (think of use at home versus at work). A few subjects derived functionalities from the product appearance. In addition, several subjects derived an impression about the functional quality of the product from its appearance. They chose the product alternative that looks the most reliable or solid, but found it difficult to indicate the characteristics responsible for this impression. This agrees with the literature, where it is noted that the global impression of the product appearance can communicate quality (Srinivasan et al., 1997; Yamamoto and Lambert, 1994). Whether and what inferences are formed on the basis of the product appearance will differ between consumers. A knowledgeable and interested consumer will be able and willing to assess the value of most technical product functions. However, other consumers may use heuristics such as more buttons mean more functions. Information about how subjects form judgments about functional product value on the basis of product appearance can be used proactively to attune product appearance to consumer perception. This increases the likelihood that consumers make accurate judgments about the functional product value, for It is not enough to bury quality in a product, it must be seen and experienced to be recognized and believed (Dickson, 1994, p. 263). More than one-third of our sample mentioned choice reasons concerning usability. Twothirds of them mentioned operational aspects, of which half referred to the number or size of the buttons. Almost one-third of the subjects that mentioned usability wanted a small number of buttons on an answering machine, as they believe this makes it more simple to operate. They consider more buttons to be simply confusing. This agrees with the notion that simplicity of operation will be a more dominant sales argument than variety of functional characteristics (Hammer, 1995; Nussbaum, 1988). Clear operation will be especially important for technologically complex products. Many electronic products are so complex that they are almost unusable, and many consumers even find high-tech products intimidating (Feldman, 1995). In addition to parts for consumer-product interaction, such as buttons and displays, we found that overall aspects of the appearance, such as size, roundedness and material, influence the (perceived) ergonomic product value. These aspects influence more indirect consequences of use, such as the space needed by the product (e.g., whether it fits on a table), the ease of handling the product, or the ease of cleaning. So in investigating the usability of a product, attention has to be paid not only to (the perception of) operational aspects, but also to these more indirect consequences of use, as these also play a role in product choice. While for food products, a positive relation is found between the ability of a package to draw attention and product choice, all but one of the subjects in our study that mentioned attention drawing as playing a role in their product choice chose the less attention-drawing product alternative. The reason for this was that they did not want the product to be conspicuous in their home. Indeed, products that draw attention in-store are often conspicuous and may not be the 17

18 same ones that are found aesthetically attractive. Aesthetic considerations will be more important to consumers for durable products than for fast-moving consumer goods, as durable products are used for a long(er) period and are often visible in one s home and for other people. So although an atypical product appearance can be a suitable way of attracting attention for durable products, care has to be taken to ensure that this atypical look is aesthetically acceptable for consumers. Concerning visual categorization, several subjects preferred the most typical looking answering machine, but found it difficult to explain why. Others preferred an atypical, and thereby less common and ordinary, answering machine. This confirms that the preference for (a)typicality differs between consumers. The choice whether to develop a typical, a slightly atypical or a very atypical appearance will depend on the target group of consumers and the kind of product. In the literature review section, cases are listed in which it is beneficial to develop a very typical or atypical appearance. The aesthetic and symbolic appearance roles were far more salient to consumers, and the appearance influenced perceived ergonomic value for one-third of the subjects (see Figure 10). The functional role of the appearance is mentioned less. This does not mean that functionalities were not important: 57.7% of the sample based their choice on functionalities. However, most of these were derived from the textual information that was presented with the products themselves, and only 12.7% of the subjects mentioned the appearance as a basis for a judgment about the functional product value. The attention-drawing and categorization roles were mentioned less often. It may be that consumers are not always conscious of their influence (see the section about future research). The relative importance of the appearance roles was not the focus of our study. As we used a small number of product alternatives, the influence of the appearance roles in our study may not be indicative for answering machines in general. For example, the answering machines in this study had one or two buttons and a volume slider; an alternative with more buttons would have increased the incidence with which subjects mention ease of operation as a choice reason. However, it is striking that aesthetic value played a role for so many subjects, while the answering machines we used do not differ that much in their appearance (they are all dark-colored, flat shapes). There were more subjects that (partly) based their choice on aesthetics than on functionalities. This may indicate the importance of aesthetics in consumers product selection. However, the relative importance of the appearance roles will differ between product categories and consumers (see the section about future research). We found several examples of interrelations between appearance roles. Significant correlations are found between aesthetic and symbolic product value, aesthetic value and attention drawing, and categorization and aesthetic as well as symbolic value. No correlations of functional or ergonomic value with other appearance roles were significant. However, for some subjects symbolic and functional value were linked, and some relations between roles might not have surfaced in our research (e.g., because of the small number of product alternatives used). Consumers may, for example, derive an impression about the functional or ergonomic product value from categorization of the product appearance; similarity to a well-known product category exemplar of high technical quality may lead consumers to infer that the product at hand is also of good quality. As some roles can be interrelated, changes in one role may influence other roles. In addition, the preferred shape (e.g., rounded or angular), color or size, were found to differ depending on the way in which product appearance played a role for subjects. For example, a small size is valued from an aesthetic point of view, but a larger size is chosen by some subjects because it looks more solid and reliable (i.e., functional value). So when something is changed in the 18

19 product appearance in order to improve its performance on one role, this has implications for the performance on other roles. Managerial implications The appearance of a product can influence consumer choice in different ways. Distinguishing these different appearance roles will help managers to make better use of product appearance as a marketing tool. Focus on the most important appearance roles To fully use the potential of product appearance in influencing consumer choice, the appearance should communicate the central consumer advantage to consumers and fit the product s market positioning (see also Just and Salvador, 2003). To make optimal use of product appearance, the marketing department or product development team should explicitly consider the impression they want the appearance to communicate. The value that is most important to consumers in purchasing a specific kind of product should be the starting-point in the design of the product appearance (Bruce and Whitehead, 1988). Therefore, it is recommendable that product designers know in an early stage whether aesthetics, ease of use, technical quality or features are most important in the brand choice for the target group of consumers. For the product shape, colors, materials and configuration that are preferred - or that engender positive product perceptions - depend on the product value that is important to the consumer. For example, a larger size may make a product look more old-fashioned and crude, more solid and stable, less easy to store, easier to operate (as buttons are bigger or further apart) and heavier in weight. Whether a larger size is preferable will therefore depend on whether aesthetic value, technical quality, or ease of use is more important to consumers. Different appearances can be made for groups of consumers that differ in the product value that is most important in their choice. For example, people who need glasses may prefer an alarm clock with buttons that have a bright contrasting color as opposed to the casing, so they can better locate the buttons in a dusky bedroom. Other people may dismiss such a product on aesthetic grounds. Are design guidelines valuable? Several influences of appearance characteristics, such as color and form, on the perception of certain kinds of product value have been mentioned in the literature, or are intuitive. Subjects in our study also mentioned such influences. For example, a bigger product looks more solid, bright colors may diminish a quality impression and a large number of buttons decreases the impression of ease of use (Norman, 1988). What is the value of such design guidelines? Is it useful to investigate such influences? Although product designers will intuitively feel how to engender a certain impression, we think that research into the influence of specific appearance elements on the perception of certain kinds of product value may help them in this. However, the intuition of the designer remains essential, as the effect of combining separate characteristics into a whole cannot be predicted. Furthermore, the value of such guidelines differs for different kinds of product values. The influence of appearance characteristics on the perception of utilitarian aspects, such as quality, 19

20 ease of use and functionality, will probably be similar over product categories, persons, and countries. People will agree that larger buttons are easier to operate and that a product with a display looks more functionally complex than one without a display. So for functional and ergonomic value, such guidelines are reliable and general research into the influence of specific appearance characteristics on their perception will be useful. However, there will be more difference between consumers in aesthetic and symbolic perception, as such matters of taste and experience are more subjective. A large size makes a certain product look modern according to one consumer, and old-fashioned according to another. In our study, many subjects mentioned that roundedness looks modern and friendly, and that angularity looks old-fashioned and cheap. However, this may be specific for the product category, the year, or the country in which the study is conducted. One has to keep in mind that the aesthetic and symbolic value of a product may differ between cultures and in time, and even depending on the context (the available product alternatives, or the store surroundings). General design guidelines will therefore be less reliable for the aesthetic and symbolic roles of the product appearance. Testing with consumers is therefore even more important for aesthetic and symbolic value, especially as these roles seemed to be the most influential, at least in our study. Testing the appearance with consumers To make sure that the appearance of a new product has a positive influence on product choice, this should be tested with consumers. One should assess whether consumer perceptions of the functional, ergonomic, aesthetic and symbolic value of a new product on the basis of its appearance are positive and correct. This can be done by asking consumers to judge the functionalities, quality, ease of use, aesthetic and symbolic value of the product on the basis of its appearance only. As there are cultural, social, and personal influences on design taste (Bloch, 1995), it is important to use the correct target group in such a test. If a design does not engender the right impression on one of these aspects, one might ask consumers how to improve it (e.g., why do you think the quality of this product is low? ). Consumers are able to do this for functional and ergonomic aspects; they are able to indicate that a display is too small, that buttons are too close together, or that certain features are unwanted. But consumers have more difficulty in indicating how aspects such as quality impression and aesthetic and symbolic value can be improved, as these concern the overall impression of the appearance. The effect of changes in appearance characteristics on the whole product impression is difficult to imagine for consumers. For the value of certain characteristics, such as color, for a consumer may change when the rest of the product changes (cf. Holbrook and Moore, 1981). With one product style, blue may be the most attractive, while with another style, green may suit better. So consumers have to see a change in appearance in order to adequately judge it. Furthermore, a consumer will often be unable to specify why he or she likes or dislikes a certain appearance, which is descriptive of holistic judgments (see Kemler Nelson, 1989; Mittal, 1988). For example, most people are probably unaware of the influence of visual organization principles on their judgments (see Veryzer, 1993; Veryzer, 1999). A possible solution to this problem is showing consumers a lot of pictures of products that they can use to point out what they mean or which products fit an intended impression. This may give the design team clues about how to better engender a specific impression. Future research 20

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