Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Sentence Completion for Evaluating Symbolic Meaning

Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Sentence Completion for Evaluating Symbolic Meaning

Article excerpt


In design, products have long been recognized as important carriers of meaning (Krippendorff & Butter, 1984). In addition to offering practical functions, products often act as symbols for people, providing personal meaning and communicating the owner's personal characteristics to others (Crilly, Moultrie, & Clarkson, 2004). For example, an expensive car may symbolize achievement; the owner feels good and important when driving the car and other people may think that the person is successful in his or her work. Product symbolism has also generated considerable interest in market research and empirical studies have shown that in certain circumstances individuals do evaluate the symbolic meanings of products when forming overall product preferences and attitudes (Allen, 2006). For example, in Creusen and Schoormans' (2005) large qualitative study of 142 users, almost one half of the sample mentioned symbolic meaning -- mostly as associations related to appearance -- as a reason for product choice when asked to make a choice between alternative telephone answering machines.

Allen (2002) defines symbolic meaning as being about the image of a product, encompassing abstract ideas and associations with a product and beliefs about the kinds of people who use it. A person may attach almost any meaning to any object, as human thinking is associative by nature. Still, the object's physical characteristics and the values attributed to it in a culture seem to play a determining role (Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981, p. 87). For example, in Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton's study of domestic objects, the symbolic meaning of TVs and stereos most often related to the person's self, photos were specialized in preserving memories and sculptures in embodying associations.

In this article, we investigate how symbolic meaning can be evaluated. Symbolic meaning is challenging to design, it being hard to anticipate other people's reactions and designers and users may attach different meanings to a product. A designer always makes assumptions about users, their behavior and ways of interpreting a product. Designers need feedback from users to understand how users see their products and attach symbolic meanings to them. Symbolic meaning is challenging to evaluate because of its intangible nature. In practice, interviewing is time demanding and only a limited number of users can participate. For social desirability reasons, users typically do not mention status or prestige issues in self-reports (Richins, 1994). An expensive car can have social status or prestige value and may make other people appreciate its owner, but practical methods are needed for evaluating designs and gathering feedback on how users attribute symbolic meanings to them.

In summary, symbolic meaning is a complex and obscure concept to identify and measure. Different researchers use different terms to describe the phenomenon, including meaning (Crilly et al., 2004; Russo & Hekkert, 2007), personal meaning (Cupchik & Hilscher, 2008), symbolic meaning (Desmet & Hekkert, 2007), product meaning (Allen, 2002, 2006), linking value (Cova, 1997) and symbolic qualities associated with products (Crilly, Good, Matravers, & Clarkson, 2008). Symbolic meaning is not a one-dimensional concept. To evaluate it from users' point of view, we need to understand the factors comprising symbolic meaning and how these factors can affect user experience. This paper reviews the literature to clarify the factors of symbolic meaning to be evaluated. The empirical part of the paper reports on a sentence completion technique for evaluating symbolic meaning and the testing of the approach in two case studies.

Symbolic Meaning as a Source of User Experience

User experience and symbolic meaning are related concepts. This section discusses the concept of user experience and its relation to symbolic meaning.

Intangible Nature of User Experience

User experience refers to the user's perceptions and responses in regard to their interaction with a system or product (ISO 9241-110, 2010). …

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