Aspirational value considered

in a recent post, Jan Chipchase makes a worthwhile point about the "aspirational" value that items can have--value created through the interaction of appearance and certain social dynamics. This quality is not much discussed in design circles, but from a sociological perspective it is nearly omnipresent. One reason for this relative lack of design consideration may be that it is considered the proper realm of marketing. Apple, for instance, knows how to play off that aspirational need and the success of the iPod and iPhone may well owe more to PR prowess than to their renowned design aesthetic.

But should aspirational value be left to marketing, while designers focus on 'real' use? It may seem obvious to point out that aspirational use is real use, but the designer should consider further, as it has some unique qualities. Some aspirational value can be had in private (buying that gym outfit to convince yourself that you really do intend to get in shape), but much of it is public, and social. In these cases ease of use and quick response may be paramount, as complex interaction and even small delays can create social awkwardness and reduce the perception of mastery. Functionality can be nearly zero so long as the right technical and social cues are hit.

Microsoft has often tried to sell new products (or versions) almost purely on a functional basis. This may be acceptable in some established markets such as productivity software, but for novel products like the Surface table, aspirational value needs to be considered for a probably significant percentage of first-generation adopters. That means that not only should the table be "easy to use" (of course), but also that it should be easy to appear to use. If a user (restaurant owner, patron, home owner, client, student, etc.) can easily complete certain satisfying tasks in front of themselves and others, then some bumps in other functions will be tolerated with a smile.

Exactly which tasks fulfill this aspirational value is the real trick to discern. It will be different for different demographics, but will have a likely unifying thread. Creations 'wizards' won't cut it, but being able to view realtime utilities data for your home might. A moderately ostentatious display of social (or business) connections might likewise fit the bill. There are signs that MS has significantly improved its approach to design in recent years, and that bodes well. The things that the Surface can do may not be terribly new, but the way in which it does them make this a truly novel device. (Note to MS: the one thing that we should never, ever, ever see on the Surface table is a BSOD.)