Is it earth-friendly? Study shows consumers think beyond form and function

You’re at the mall, trying to decide between two similar products. Most companies assume you are weighing two questions: Does it look good, and will it work? Put another way, form and function remain the backbone of product design.

New research from San Francisco State University, however, suggests that this thinking is too narrow.

Consumers also consider how a product’s design affects what others think about them and how environmentally friendly a product is, according to a study published last month in the Journal of Business Research. All of these factors create what lead author and SF State Associate Professor of Marketing Minu Kumar calls the “SAFE values”: social, altruistic, functional and esthetic (the last more commonly referred to as form).

“It’s not just form and function,” said Kumar. “You have to think about these other two things when you talk to consumers.”

To conduct the study, Kumar and his colleague Charles Noble from the University of Tennessee asked consumers to share their opinions about a variety of household items such as chairs, forks and kitchen utensils. They then analyzed the responses in search of themes or other commonalities. From there, the four categories emerged.

“Most of the stuff they talked about was form and function,” Kumar said. “But then they started to get into more high-level thinking. How do other people see me? What’s the social utility of this product? How does it help the environment?”

There were some caveats. A previous study has shown that consumers who naturally have a better eye for design are more likely to consider all four factors, meaning companies that market to these individuals should pay closer attention to the SAFE values. On the other hand, cconsumers of certain products, like medical devices, may not be looking for altruistic or social reasons to buy a product in the first place. And Kumar’s past research has demonstrated there are regional differences in what consumers value.

Furthermore, additional research by Kumar and his colleague Michael Luchs from the College of William and Mary, to be published later this year, shows what kinds of trade-off consumers are willing to make when it comes to each of the four components of product design value. That study reveals that customers are willing to trade esthetic values — how good the design looks  — for environmental friendliness, but will not make the same bargain when it comes to how well the product functions.

“When you’re designing a product, you don’t want to give up functionality for the sake of altruistic value,” Kumar said. “But you can potentially invest a little more in altruism than esthetics and still get away with it.”

Product design often serves as a tool to communicate the value of the product offering to the consumer, Kumar said. Therefore, he and his colleagues built a tool, validated using real-world products, that allows developers to evaluate their products for each of the SAFE factors. The tool can potentially provide them the opportunity to assess what consumers expect in the design of a product and assess if it matches with the developed product.

“If it matches, then the designer has done what they wanted to do,” he said. “They’ve communicated the intended values correctly to the consumer.”

Beyond form and function: why do consumers value product design?” by Kumar and Charles H. Noble was published online in 2015 in the Journal of Business Research and appears in the journal’s February 2016 issue. The research was funded by the Marketing Science Institute. “Yes, but this other one looks better/works better: how do consumers respond to trade-offs between sustainability and other valued attributes?” by Michael G. Luchs and Kumar was published online in 2015 in the Journal of Business Ethnics and will appear in a future print edition.

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