Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Developing Lovable Products To Win Over Competition

By Soumyanath Chatterjee

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This article and the forthcoming in the series will explain what makes a product lovable and how to consistently create such products for brand building to win over any competition in the market.

Right from waking up to the time we go back to sleep we continuously use some product or the other. Even during sleep, we use products like the bed, pillows, fans, alarm clocks, etc. But we love some of these and hate a few. We willingly pay a premium price for the products we love. We take good care of them and go back to the same manufacturer for replacement. Over the years, manufacturers of those lovable products develop strong brands. Brands that most people trust.

There is quite a varied choice when it comes to the loved products. Some people may love their musical instruments, some their bike, and some their mobile phone. And one person can love several products, some of which the person may not even have.

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People often make many personal sacrifices to acquire these loved products. Costly goods like cars, bikes, and watches fall in that category. When we plan to develop a product, we should try to make it lovable. Lovable products create their own market and help to create a strong brand.

Let me explain what is a lovable product with a few examples from my personal use. The first product that I would describe is my pen. I received it as a gift from my father. It is a fountain pen made by a reputed company. It enables smooth writing and holds sufficient ink so that I never have to worry about the ink running out. Its grip is comfortable. It also looks nice with a silver cap on a black body and a gold-plated clip.

I used to carry it in my pocket more as a fashion accessory. I have used it since my student days and wrote all my major examinations with it. Now getting ink for the pen is rather difficult, so I have replaced it with a roller pen of the same brand.

The second loved product I have is my old calculator. This one is a small scientific calculator. I do not need it now. There are software solutions on my phone and my computer, but I still keep it as a memento.

I have used it throughout my student period and a good portion of my work life. The battery of that calculator lasts more than a year of constant use. It had taken a fair amount of abuse in terms of fall and water damage but has survived all those with some minor dents and scratches. Its size is small enough to carry in a pocket.

I can go on with the list of more products that I love but let us pause to understand what makes these products lovable. The common thread between these products is frequent usage, their robustness, and good user experience. Together they create habit-forming products—the products in which we find comfort and cannot live without.

The habit-forming curve in Fig. 1 tells us that we get habituated to the products that we frequently use. Until the frequency of use crosses a threshold limit, we will not get attached to that product. Similarly, we need to find some utility of the product. Unless we have some perceived utility for it, we do not get attached to the product.

Fig. 1: Habit formation
Fig. 1: Habit formation

The combined factor of perceived utility and frequency of use gives rise to habit formation. In our daily use we have multiple alternatives. We have to think and choose between these alternatives. All these choices require certain mental activity. When we convert these mental efforts into a habit we do not have to think.

Habits make it possible for us to deal with complexities in life without wasting our mental energy in performing the task. It is like learning to ride a bicycle or drive a car. As long as we have not mastered the controls, we need to think. After practice, these activities become a habit and one can do these activities without much effort.

It is the same with our selection of products. For a successful product, we need to increase its frequency of use as well as increase its perceived utility.

Products have two different kinds of utility. The first addresses some specific problems that we have. According to Nir Eyal, author of the bestseller ‘Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,’ such utilities are like painkillers. We do not use these painkillers unless we have pain. They have a high perceived utility but fall short in the frequency of use.

The other kind of products he calls vitamins. We use these products regularly to ward off some notional problems. A pharmacist will tell you that vitamins sell more than painkillers.
Coming back to my examples of calculators and pens, I used to carry them in my pocket or my bag more as security. Now the calculator has been replaced by a mobile phone. A mobile phone has more utility and takes about the same amount of space.

There are many more things in my house that have occasional use, but I do not carry them around all the time as I do my phone and the pen. The reason I carry my phone and pen is that I can afford to. The property that makes the product to be used in a certain way is called affordance. This is the property that makes us use the product in intended or unintended ways.

For instance, the designer of the pen provided a clip for us to attach it to something—be it a shirt pocket or a loop inside my bag. Now, I also use the clip to secure some loose paper on my desk. This is an affordance that probably the designer had not planned. Sometimes I may stretch the unplanned affordance and clip a whole bunch of papers.

A well-designed product will either prevent such unplanned use or accommodate it. For instance, the clip of a cheap pen will bend and become loose after I clip a thick bunch of papers. In my pen, the clip is designed with variable rigidity that will not allow me to insert more than a couple of sheets, and the clip will withstand only that much abuse.

A well-designed product will have a good amount of affordance for its intended use. For instance, the pen is lightweight so I can carry it or write with it easily. It has a nice grip that is comfortable to hold for hours. It writes smoothly. The cap is easy to open but at the same time remains secure once closed. The clip, which is visible from my pocket, is aesthetically designed and acts as a fashion accessory.

The ability to use a product in different ways increases its utility and makes us use them frequently. Which in turn makes them more adorable. Now, the product does not become useful by the mere presence of the affordance. The user of the product must know about its presence and get a hint on how to use the affordance.

The feature that communicates affordance to the user is called a signifier. For instance, in my pen, there is a ring between the body and the cap. This is a signifier that separates two similar-looking objects so that I know which two parts to hold and pull to open the cap. Affordances are the physical features that enable us to use the product; signifiers are the communication features of the affordances that tell us about the presence of the feature and give hint on how to use the affordances.

Proper design of signifiers differentiates great products from the rest. Improper signifiers, on the other hand, create difficulty in using the product and reduce its value. For instance, when we see a door recessed inside a frame, the signifier invites us to push it open. If the door opens outside, or we need to pull it sideways, then that needs to have a certain signifier telling us that. A bar on the door signifies pushing and a handle invites us to pull it. A pedal gives a clear indication of pressing it with the foot.

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