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Gadgets Include User Attachment

Designer's of today's electronic devices try to push consumers' buttons. The objective is set the products apart and create emotional bonds.

July 31, 2005|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

Scott Rose is gaga for his iPod.

"Imagine being in a romance so perfect, you wonder how you ever managed to survive before this person came into your life," said Rose, a 33-year-old Los Angeles computer consultant. "That's how I feel about my iPod."

Rose's passion for his digital music player stems less from the mysterious chemistry of human devotion than from the calculating precision of Apple Computer Inc. engineers, who designed the iPod to elicit the same sort of warm, gooey feelings most people associate with love.

The tiny player's curves, for instance, are baby smooth.

"It really begs to be caressed," said Apple's Greg Joswiak.

Its reflective stainless steel back demands constant polishing.

"People use it as a mirror," Joswiak said. "It becomes a reflection of them and their unique taste in music."

Its white plastic case is "pure."

All that rhapsody for something that is essentially an unromantic hard drive and a few silicon chips?

Across the consumer electronics industry, traditionally geeky manufacturers are embracing their sensitive side to develop products that evoke feelings, including joy, desire, comfort and nostalgia.

"Technology used to be sold primarily on the basis of functional needs," said Tim Brown, chief executive of Ideo, a design firm in Palo Alto. "But things that are functional are too easy to copy because companies are all getting access to the same technologies. That's when meeting emotional needs becomes steadily more important."

That's what Hannspree Inc. concluded three years ago when the Taiwanese display manufacturer decided to make its own branded TVs. But instead of churning out cheap LCD screens, Hannspree took a different tack. Last year, it launched a line of 100 TVs, each aimed at different emotional targets. One is shaped like a plush puppy, another like a baseball that is actually made of hand-stitched leather.

"If you saw a TV that looked like a baseball, you'd think it's fun," said Michael Galvin, a marketing manager for Hannspree. "And you'd know it's a gimmick. But when you touch it, it's both surprising and reassuring. You don't expect it to be the real thing. But it is, and you remember what it felt like when you held a baseball, you remember when you went to a ballpark. You connect it with whatever baseball means to you. The TV is both visual and tactile, so it's a much stronger impact."

In addition to differentiating technologically identical products, emotional design can be a hedge against user frustration. It's no secret that the novelty of a gadget often is inversely related to its reliability. But when users feel bonded to their devices, they are more likely to consider malfunctions as quirks rather than defects.

"We have love-hate relationships with technology," said design consultant Donald A. Norman, author of "Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things." "I can't live without my cellphone, but it really annoys me. I'm not in control of when my cellphone rings. That speaks to a lack of trust people have regarding their technology. When I use my computer and everything goes well, the emotion I feel is relief. Relief is not a positive emotion; it's the lack of a negative one."

Add to that the fact that gadgets are no longer just about the bits of hardware. Like the iPod, many also wrap in software and services such as Apple's iTunes, which manages songs and sells music downloads. Combining all three components requires more thoughtful attention to what designers call the "consumer experience."

"We think of it as a holistic experience," Sony Corp. design strategist Alex Arie said. "It's not just the hardware, but also everything surrounding it. It's how people connect with it in the store. It's how they open the package when they get home, how they first pick it up, how they use it. It's the relationship they build with the product over time. We want it to fulfill their desires, to become part of their family."

Not everyone is as passionate as Arie about design. Sure, design is a differentiator, but some say how much something costs and how well it works are more important.

"First and foremost, people care about functionality," said Van Baker, consumer electronics analyst at market research firm Gartner Group Inc. "That's why there are so many pretenders to the iPod throne. They think it's just about industrial design. In reality, it's a product that does what I want it to do. The fact that it has a nice design is just a bonus."

But neurologist Antonio Damasio believes that tapping into emotions is more than just a nice touch. In many cases, he said, emotions help drive decisions. In his studies of patients whose brain injuries impaired their ability to express emotions, Damasio found that many had difficulty making decisions, even though they were able to clearly articulate the pros and cons of various options.

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