Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Extrinsic Goals, Perpetual Dissatisfaction, and Sustainability

There is a clear difference in consumer expectations, or rather more of a division between intrinsic and extrinsic goals.  Some customers are focused on the intrinsic value of a product (the functional benefit derived from its use), whereas others are more concerned with the extrinsic value (the esteem that a person derives from being associated with a product).

It is a common mistake to suggest this is an evolution – as it is not. Preference for the intrinsic is prevalent amount the Silent Generation, Generation X, and the iGen whereas extrinsic is prevalent among Boomers and Millennial Generations – but even within the generations there are customers of both kinds, not to mention that each individual has a mix of extrinsic and intrinsic goals when approaching any purchasing decision.

It is plainly evident in advertising messages that some firms seek to associate their brands with the intrinsic value of their product, whereas others seek to associate with the extrinsic value.   I believe the latter to be a tactical benefit and a strategic mistake because extrinsic motivation does not support a sustainable competitive advantage and, in fact, creates a business model that is inherently unsustainable.

This is mainly because the extrinsic qualities of a brand are entirely beyond the maker’s control.   They may believe that they have command of the market, that their advertising dominates customer perception, but it does not: the market may hear the voice of the brand, but it often comes to its own conclusion.

Moreover, the intrinsic value of a brand is immutable, whereas the extrinsic is extremely mutable, and mutates in a manner that is entirely whimsical.   If a brand is popular because it is fashionable, it may find that it becomes unfashionable in an unpredictable and inexplicable manner – or at the very least new customers reject the brand because of its acceptance among old customers from whom they wish to dissociate themselves.

As a concrete example, considering the advertising campaign that proclaimed “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”   The market heard and rejected it, voting with their dollars that, in fact, yes it is my father’s Oldsmobile, and because I want to be perceived as being different from the older generation, it is not the vehicle for me.   And on that hill, the brand lost the battle.  It failed entirely to shift the extrinsic value of the brand to meet the expectations of the younger generations, and it died when its previous customer base left the market.

Not only is it impossible to predict the whims of the extrinsic market, but satisfying such demands can lead only to short-term success.    It is typically the younger generation, which is perceived as being capricious and fastidious, never satisfied and constantly complaining – but it is also true of older extrinsic customers, and it is because of a simple maxim, that “money cannot buy you happiness.”  The extrinsic goal may be achieved, but it is a limited and short-term success.

The extrinsic customer is seeking to become something he is not by associating himself to a specific brand.  But instead of the customer being perceived differently because of the brand, the brand is then perceived differently because of the customer.   That is, if working-class people buy a brand because it is associated with the wealthy, then they are not perceived as being wealthy – at least not in a sustainable manner.  Instead, the brand loses its glamor and is perceived as a working-class brand.

To go again to the automotive market, consider the mistake made by Mercedes-Benz in putting out an economy version of its marque.  The affordable C-class (and the extremely cheap A-class) did, for a time, make their blue-collar drivers feel like they had advanced their social status, but the wealthy then saw the brand as being more of a working-class vehicle, low-quality and cheap, and the Mercedes brand has correspondingly fallen from grace, and the maker had to launch a new brand to recapture the luxury market.  Though they may find commercial success in serving the mass markets, they may never again be regarded as a luxury brand.

Back to the point, the extrinsic customer who seeks to change his status by associating himself to the brand will be dissatisfied because the status of the brand will be diminished by his patronage.  In much the same way, a person who purchases a brand with the assumption that ownership will make him seem smart, clever, and sophisticated will still be the same stupid, dull, and vulgar person he was the day before he purchased it.  The ability of a brand to adjust perception is thus only temporary.

This considered, any appeal to the extrinsically motivated customer must be regarded as a happy accident, rather than a sustainable brand strategy.  And brands may ignore this to their own peril, as they will invariably  discover that the sustainability of their firm derives from the sustainability of their brand – it is unwise for long-term objectives to be pursued by means that are inherently temporary and capricious as fashion and those who follow it.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Perception, Abstraction, and Brand Identity

One elementary quality that distinguishes the human mind from that of animals is in its ability to construct meaning.  Our perception and our memory are mechanisms by which we survive.  We do not react automatically by the superficial appearances of things – but instead we distinguish food from poison, threat from opportunity, and friend from foe by the use of our perception and memory

Our perception and memory are generally reliable – but at times they can lead us astray.   The greater the complexity of our situation, the more likely we will make mistakes, sometimes serious ones, by applying overly simplistic reasoning.   But it would be equally simplistic to assume that emotions overthrow the rules of logic.  Perception can be limited, and logic can be fallacious, but belief is inherently based on a rational process.

Abstract thinking can also tend to lead us astray – because an abstraction is based on a subjective assessment of what qualities are the most important.  Compare any sketch or drawing to the actual object, and you will quickly notice which features the artist considered to be significant and which he chose to ignore in creating his representation.

Abstractions are also not necessarily reductive – many can be additive.   Consider the tendency to anthroporphize things.   When we project thoughts and emotions onto animals, objects, organizations, and other non-human phenomena, we are adding to our beliefs based on things that are entirely imaginary.

In the same way, a “brand” was originally a mark burned onto an object to indicate its owner or maker.   The brand is a kind of mental abstraction – meant to represent something in minimal detail, in which we have ignored many of the actual qualities and added other attributes that are based on oru own imagination.

Brand exists in the mind of the customer, not the maker. Certainly, the maker wants customers to believe certain things about their brand and wishes to influence the way in which it is perceived.  But actual experience will override anything a brand had to say about itself.  A brand may claim to be high-quality, but our experience of it may suggest otherwise – as well as the reportage of others who claim to have experience.  

The maker is an external voice, suggesting what customers ought to think of his brand – but ultimately, customers decide for themselves, and they do so based on abstraction drawn from their limited and skewed perception.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

15 Decision-Making Flaws

In reading about customer behavior, I’ve put together a list of decision-making flaws.    Not much in the way of commentary here – just making a note of the list itself:
  • Ambiguity Aversion – Avoiding making decisions when the relevant information is unknown or uncertain
  • Anecdotal Evidence – Being persuaded by anecdotes that agree with beliefs, even when they are anecdotes of unusual situations
  • Availability Bias – Making a decision based on information that is readily available even if it is not the most relevant
  • Rules of Thumb – Applying simplistic rules to complex decisions, even when they do not apply
  • Status Quo Bias – Preferring the solution that causes the least change rather than a more effective alternative
  • Default Effects – Agreeing with what is suggested rather than considering other options
  • Self-Control – Seeking the easiest solution rather than the best
  • Procrastination – Refusing to decide or act when a situation is perceived as being too far in the future to matter
  • Hyperbolic Discounting – Grossly underestimating the negative or positive impact of events that are further in the future
  • Emotionalism – Choosing the option that has the most positive or least negative impact on the emotions during the decision-making process
  • Reference Dependence – Creating an arbitrary benchmark against which other alternatives must be weighed (without proving the validity of the benchmark)
  • Choice Bracketing – Making choices in isolation, ignoring the impact they have on other factors
  • Framing Effects – Limiting the consideration of a subject to the context in which it is framed
  • Choice Architecture – Constraining decisions to an arbitrary set of options
  • Cognitive Filtering – Making a quick decision and giving attention only to information that supports it
I don't expect this is comprehensive, just a listing of the ones that one author chose to mention, but it's a good start on a more extensive exploration of the topic.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Design as Conversation

I’m doing rather a lot of remote user testing these days – people use a site to view information about a proposed product and respond verbally to what they are shown and asked.   Most of the respondents follow a predictable pattern, reading a question, giving a brief answer, and moving on – but one of them took an unusual and rather interesting approach: she had a conversation with the product page.
“You say you are a [type of company] and that you want to talk to me about a new product called [product name].    I understand the kind of company you are and I do not know anything about the product.” 
 “You say that this product is supposed to [description of benefit].  I understand what you mean, and I think that what you’re offering is interesting to me because [her reason for being interested] but I am also suspicious about [certain aspects of the agreement].”
 “You say that [key selling point] and I’m not sure I believe you.   It sounds good, but right now it’s just a claim you’re making without proof.  I’ll be listening to hear if you provide any support for that claim later.”
She carried on throughout the test like this, “you say” the various information we presented on the product information page.  “I think” about what her reactions were.   It was very thorough, detailed, and useful.

I’d like to be able to coach others to do this, but my sense is it would be weird and artificial for them, and it might taint the results.   But I do think that this conversational model can be flipped to talk about the product and page design.   “We are telling the user [this], and we expect them to think [that]” – or for more interactive models, to say “We are asking the user [this] and we expect them to say [that]”

I’ll mediate on this a bit more later – for now I wanted to document the experience and its potential for use as a design method.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Prized Possessions

In conducting research into personal finance, an interviewer asked an odd question to put the interviewee at ease: she asked them to tell her of their most prized possession – a physical object they had purchased themselves rather than received as a gift.  It was not intended to be part of the study, just a non-sequitur to put them at ease and get them confortable talking about personal matters – but the results were rather interesting.

There was no consensus on the item itself – for one participant it was a wristwatch, another their car, another had a favorite pair of shoes, and so on.   But there were some common themes as to why they prized that particular possession:
  1. It was expensive or difficult to obtain – such that the act of purchasing it felt like a significant personal accomplishment
  2. It was related to their personal identity – something about owning or using the object was related to a character trait they admired
  3. They mentioned the brand – without prompting, every person named the brand of the item, and many knew the model name
There were a few other qualities that were repeated by some of the participants, but these three were the only universals that were mentioned by every single person when asked about their most prized possessions.  While the research was qualitative, I do think that this would stand up to the rigors of a broader quantitative inquiry.

I’ve meditated on this a while, and have no general conclusions or prescriptive advice.  My sense is that the qualities that make a given product into a prized possession occur by happenstance.   With the exception of true luxury brands, no brand seeks to make its product expensive and difficult to obtain – quite the opposite, in fact – and I do not believe it is within the power of a marketer to cause a product to correlate to admirable character traits: they can create this perception through advertising, but it’s only through ownership and use that the association will be validated.

However, it may help to understand the reason that many brands must struggle, and ultimately fail, to become the prized possessions of their customers.  It is highly unlikely that any mass-market product will be expensive or difficult to obtain, and some products have very little chance of being or becoming related to the expression of an essential character trait.   The mass-produced staple goods are brands of routine consumption that, while indicative of certain qualities of the product, have no special significance to the consumer - hence they have little chance of ever being regarded as a prized possession.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Disadvantage of Self-Service

The greatest advantage of technology is empowerment: it enables many people to perform a task in spite of their lack of expertise.   This is also the greatest disadvantage of technology – because while it enables people to do a task, it does not enable them to do it well.

It’s easy to observe when the results are visual: an accounting clerk, given a word processing program, can “design” documents.   He can lay out a document, choose typefaces and colors, decorate it with clip-art, and perform other tasks he has no skill or training at doing – and the result is absolutely hideous and unreadable because he doesn’t have the skills of a designer.

An in the spirit of fair play, it works both ways:  a designer, given a spreadsheet application, can do accounting work.  They can enter numbers, create categories, and do financial analyses with the software – and the result is just as awful, wrong, and dangerous to reply upon because he doesn’t have the skills of an accountant.

A hapless and unskilled worker with sophisticated tools does not become an expert, nor capable of doing the work of someone with skills and experience – though their ignorance and narcissism make many of them loath to admit it.   And a lazy or cheap manager, who does not himself understand or prioritize quality, will provide no discouragement – and may in fact be very supportive of having “Bob the Accountant” design the company’s sales brochures because he has the software to do so.   It’s certainly cheaper than hiring a real designer to do the work.

But take this a step further … the same attitude is taken toward the customer.   If the firm provides self-service capabilities, the customer can take on tasks that had previously been performed by skilled (read “expensive”) employees who currently provide them with service.  

This idea, while financially attractive, can only lead to disaster.   Some customers are capable of self-service, others are not.  And it will become clear which are or are not when they find that self-service does not lead to the fulfillment of their needs to a degree of quality they find acceptable.

And customers can be just as narcissistic and ignorant as employees in this regard: they feel that whatever they did for themselves must have been done right, and so if there is any dissatisfaction with the outcome, it is the company they did business with that is to blame.   It’s the solution that did not perform the job adequately, not their lack of expertise in using it, and they will switch to a different solution provider.

And while the economic efficiency of customer self-service will continue to attract firms to any prospect of reducing their labor, it must be done with the consideration that when any cost is saved, the quality of service is invariably diminished – so follows customer satisfaction, and so follows market share.  There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but they tend to be rare.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Design for Positive Emotional Benefits

The post I wrote last month about NineDesirable Emotional States has garnered more attention that I anticipated – and in response, I am getting the question of how an experience designer can leverage this information to improve their customer experience.   The original article explored the emotions, and did not connect the dots.   And so, this follow up:


Tranquility pertains to the status quo: a person feels happy (not merely contented) with their current situation, feeling everything to be acceptable (or even excellent) just as it is.

The most common way in which this emotion is leveraged is to destroy it, to cause a contented person to feel discontented and want something more.  This does not qualify as leveraging positive emotion: it is undermining positive emotion for the sake of restoring it – a sort of Munchausen-by-proxy approach to design, and it is ethically questionable.

Since the emotion pertains to a satisfactory status quo, one which is not motivation to change the way things are, the best way to leverage tranquility is to extend it: to design products for durability (a good will last a long time, or the benefits of a service will be long-lasting).  Where it is not possible to make a good everlasting or a service’s benefits will wane, assurance can be provided that the good will be replaced or the service will be repeated as necessary to maintain the status quo.


Confidence is a sense of power to be successful at doing something in the future.   A person may experience a feeling of confidence in their capabilities, even if they have no plan or reasonable expectation of using those capabilities.

To create confidence, customer experience must communicate the capabilities that the product will provide when it is employed.   Because you have this thing, you will be able to accomplish this goal … when you get around to it.

The desire for confidence is what leads consumers to amass a horde of unused products, so caution must be taken.  To stay on the sunny side of the street, ethically speaking, you must avoid creating or pandering to the desire for power that is highly unlikely to be used in the future.   To sell a product that will never be needed is still a “sale” but eventually leads to discontent when the customer recognizes the opportunity cost: the cost and effort expended for an unnecessary product could have been applied to one that would have created value.


Excitement is the anticipation of a positive outcome in the course of performing a task.   The key difference between confidence and excitement is that excitement pertains to actions that are taking place immediately or in the very near future, and that it is highly unsustainable: excitement fades quickly.

Creating excitement about a product in advance is similar to creating confidence – the chief difference being that the positive outcome does not depend on the capabilities of the customer himself.   It is the difference between promising “you will enjoy a tasty meal” and “you will have the ability to prepare a tasty meal” – the latter is confidence, the former excitement.

To create excitement in the course of action, a customer experience must be designed to provide a sense of positive progress.   The experience provides reassurance that the customer is doing the right thing and that a positive outcome will be achieved if he continues in his course of action.

The evanescence of excitement is worth mentioning, because it is a common mistake to attempt to generate excitement too far in advance of an experience.   The further in the future an event will occur, the less likely a person is to feel excited – and if you generate excitement too far in advance, it will sour and the person will instead feel disappointment that the positive outcome has not happened yet, and begin to doubt it ever will.


Relief is the emotional consequence of achieving a positive outcome in spite of doubt, which may be a proactive accomplishment but is more often merely the avoidance or mitigation of damage from an external threat.

The most obvious example of commercial solutions that deliver relief are medical care to alleviate pain or restore health after illness or injury.   Insurance products work in much the same way for financially damaging events.   It is possible to cause a person distress for the sake of providing relief afterward, but this is highly unethical.

For the sensation of relief to be genuine, the distress must be genuine (relief from psychological distress is also relief, but it can be difficult to assess and the subject may not recognize the value of the solution).  Moreover, the restoration or alleviation must also be genuine – a “fake cure” may sell on hope, but will not re-sell unless it delivers genuine relief.


Satisfaction pertains to philosophical fitness rather than the functional outcome of undertaking an action.  It is a sense of justice, that the outcome was “right” regardless of whether the outcome is positive or negative. Satisfaction can be difficult to deliver because it requires understanding and meeting expectations, and not all customers have the same expectations.

While “customer satisfaction” is a term that is so widely used it has lost its precise meaning, the core quality of satisfaction is simple enough: the customer felt the service provider did what he was supposed to do and what it was “right” for him to do.  It can occur even when the outcome of a service experience was a functional failure: the customer is satisfied that the firm did its best, even though it did not ultimately succeed.

Conversely, satisfaction may not occur when a service experience is successful, but the customer feels that the firm did something wrong or unethical in their process.    This is the reason that the public turns against brands that are involved in scandals, even if their products are perfectly satisfactory in meeting their functional needs.


Amusement is the pleasure that arises from a positive or benign discovery, the self-satisfaction experienced by a person who has “solved” a mystery or untangled a dilemma.   It is an emotion that is short-lived and fades quickly.

Amusement is the emotional benefit of any new product – it is the natural reaction to any non-threatening novelty.   However, the amusement can generally be effected only once: the second time a person solves a puzzle is not as satisfactory as the first.  Once they have experienced it and know what to expect, there is no surprise that causes amusement.

While many products can cause amusement once, few can do it a second time without making significant changes to the product itself.   A person may enjoy a comedy performance once, but the second time the jokes aren’t as funny – the performer must come up with a new routine to re-create amusement.


Gratitude is an emotion felt by one person in regard to another who has rendered them some benefit.  It is an emotional component of any successful brand experience, but is particularly pronounced in personal services in which the customer meets the employee who provides service, or who is responsible for making a good they enjoy.

I cannot conceive of a product whose primary emotional benefit is gratitude, and there likely is not one because gratitude is a reaction to what someone else has done – and there is no action that merits gratitude in and of itself, as it is always attached to the consequences of the action.   So it will always be on the periphery of a brand experience.

While gratitude is generally felt toward individuals, it can also be attached to things through the process of anthropomorphization.   When people state that they “love” a physical good, or that they feel affection toward a company or brand, this is generally gratitude attaching itself to a non-human object or idea.


Admiration is a feeling of affiliation to an individual – though, again, it can be attached to an anthropomorphized object, company, or brand.   An individual has positive emotions toward another person and derives personal happiness in having a social connection to them.

The most common cause of admiration is quality: when a firm provides a product that impresses the customer, the customer admires the product or the firm for its competence.   It is not that the person admires the product, but admires the qualities that the product embodies or suggests about its maker.

Admiration can also be for non-functional reasons.  Quite often, a brand is admired for the conduct of the company that makes it – hence many firms make use of conspicuous charitable giving to align themselves with the moral sentiments of desired market segments, thus creating a “brand halo” that wins admiration regardless of the quality of their products.


Wonder occurs when an experience defies comprehension, but seems to pose no threat.   It is most often described in the context of something quite large, whether physically or conceptually, or something that has a supernatural quality about it that cannot quite be fathomed.

Products that are described by their customers and prospects as “miracles” instill a sense of wonder – however, wonder is short-lived.  When a person comes to understand something, becomes familiar and inured with it, the sense of wonder fades.   It is not an emotion that can be repeated or sustained with much success, and is generally strongest in the first encounter with a brand.


I’ve gone a bit further here in exploring how brand experiences can be aligned with the positive emotional sates – though my sense is that this has been a bit of a meander that has barely scratched the surface.   There are certainly other ways in which these emotions can be leveraged as part of experience design – and much is going to be specific to the product, the customer, and the particulars of their situation.