I was at a dinner with some family a few months ago when a cousin told me she wanted to buy a Tesla Model 3. As a product designer, I naturally proceeded to badger her with “why” questions until she excused herself to eat somewhere else.
She hasn’t invited me to dinner again since.
Regardless, it was worth it because what I got from her was fascinating. Verbatim, her first answer was:
“It looks so pretty…and of course there are the fuel cost savings too.”
A quick Google of every new major iPhone launch evidences this best. Critics berate Apple for prioritizing form over function, that the new device is dead in the water, that this apparent lack of prudent judgement is linked to their inherent arrogance and snobbery. And yet, those devices historically have been arguably the most commercially successful products of all time.
So what gives?
Is it possible that form is actually more important than function? Let’s dig a bit deeper.
Our decisions are emotion-driven
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has been studying how the brain reacts when making decisions for decades. One of his most fascinating discoveries was when he studied patients with brain damage related to the area responsible for generating emotions. These patients were completely unable to make even the simplest decisions such as what to eat for dinner.
They would try and rationally decide what the benefits were of eating turkey over chicken for dinner — and in the process deliberate for the entire evening.
If it were me, I’d probably remember that the last time I had turkey was an expired deli sandwich from a gas station. Severely affected (emotionally and physically) by that single experience, I’d choose chicken — even though that incident has no bearing on the chicken I’m deciding between tonight.
The conclusion? Almost all of the decisions that we believe to be logical are actually completely influenced by simple, good-old-fashioned gut emotion. By this logic, I’d argue that we can therefore actually make a proven argument that our decision-making is primarily emotion-driven, not logic-driven.
Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman has more to add. Through his research, he found that 95% of decision-making is subconscious. In fact, though you’d assume that people normally consider different brands before buying, that’s simply not true.
The funny thing is, we even love to pretend that we all make sound, logical, thought-out decisions. Because answering “why did you pick Tesla?” with “it looks pretty” is outrageous right? Of course everyone buys Tesla on a logical decision that stems from the calculated cost savings of fuel over a period of X years.
For example, many consumers report handling competing brands and comparing prices at the point of purchase. However, observations of these same consumers often reveal that they don’t even look at alternatives to the chosen brand.
— Gerard Zaltman
If we dig into my cousin’s comment a bit, she accidentally blurted out that she bought a Tesla because she thought “it looked pretty”, before adding in the perfectly logical reason of fuel cost savings. So which one was it really? The function needs to be there for sure, but if it was simply fuel cost savings there are certainly other options.
I believe the real answer was that she saw it, test drove her friend’s, felt cool driving it, and decided right there and then. She then used the fuel cost savings as the logic to convince herself that she was making a sound choice.
We use logic to cover the impact of form
There’s nothing wrong with how she came to that conclusion either. I’m not exempt from this tendency either.
Last year, when Apple released the iPhone XR, a colleague of mine bought one and had it at the office. I hadn’t held one at that point yet so I asked if I could, and after he reluctantly agreed (given my butterfinger track record) I gave it a good look.
I had bought the iPhone X the year before, and was incredibly happy with my purchase. I was holding the X in one hand and the XR in the other. The XR was about $500 cheaper (we’re in Canada), and my logical brain kicked in. Why did I buy the X? Should I have waited for the XR? The following conversation went like this:
Colleague: “So, what do you think?”
Me: “Well, it’s also a really great device, and it’s $500 cheaper. It has (the XR) literally the same guts as mine (the X), so really the only big difference is…”
Colleague: “The bezel, right? Oh that and the camera.”
Me: “The camera yea. But the X’s bezel is soo much thinner and nicer. For me, that’s worth $500.”
A third colleague who had been sitting in the corner listening this whole time: “ME TOO.”
In a meeting where we were supposed to be critiquing a product pitch, we had discovered that all three of us had prioritized the form over the function of the purchases we had all made. That, and we had all tried to justify that it was what the camera allowed us to do when it was in fact the aesthetics of the device.
We may be in the minority, but judging by Damasio and Zaltman’s research, we’re not.
**As a quick caveat, even those who’d argue that the ‘portrait mode’ feature on the iPhone cameras was what sold them should remember that that feature is simply a better way to make your subjects look, well, prettier!
What this means for designers
As designers, our job is to make things desirable. In Tim Brown’s innovation matrix of economic viability, technological feasibility, and human desirability, we’re responsible for the latter. So what makes something desirable?
Of course, function is important, but the reputation of form in the last decade seems to have been unduly tainted. Form is as important if not more so than function — just think about the last time you wanted something and honestly ask yourself why. Was it really the fuel cost savings? Or was it how the brand makes you feel?
Just because something works doesn’t make it desirable. I had a working fingerprint sensor on my ASUS laptop long before I ever used the Touch ID on the iPhone. Did it work? Yes. Did it look and feel great? Absolutely not. And now, nobody will even remember ASUS’s version when Apple’s will go down as one of the best innovations in recent memory
The world may trivialize form. But as designers we can’t forget it and how important of a role it plays in making things people want.
We have a duty to educate the world that having something that makes you feel great because it itself looks and feels great is real value. People may sneer and jab, but it’s to their own detriment. Design is a human business. And if you want to better the lives of humans, you can’t ignore form.
I hope you found this post interesting, whether you agreed with it or not! Join me for weekly product design insights where I share conversations I’ve had with top designers & directors from companies like Dropbox, what I’ve learned from scaling a startup into the millions in revenue, and more!