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Meaning in Product Use - A Design Perspective (Chapter 12)

In chapter 12 of Product Experience, Boess and Kanis explore the ways in which products can hold meaning and how we, as humans interpret the products around us. They highlight the importance of understanding that human product interaction is impossible to predict, and that despite the efforts of designers to communicate how a product should be used, it can often be misunderstood since ‘user activities (perception, cognition, action) are largely unpredictable on the basis of prior theoretical considerations.’


Elaborating on this further, Boess and Kanis explore product semantics, and how we can view the form of products as ‘language-like’. They consider semantics to be ‘meaning associated with product characteristics.’ These consist of form, dimensions, colour, graphics, texture, transparency, fragility, and grouping of product parts. The diversity of product characteristics that can impact a user’s ability to interact with the product correctly was surprising to me and indicated the consideration that needs to go into every part of the products form in order to convey meaning to the user.


They also discuss the theory of affordances. Boess and Kanis investigate the issue surrounding the relation between cultural conventions and affordances. In the book, a post-box is used as an example; the slot clearly affords that something can be placed inside, however it is our cultural understanding regarding the postal system and how it works that ensures we are able to understand how to use it. This can also be seen in products such as table lamps or television remotes.


The buttons/ switches afford being pressed, however, only due to cultural conventions can we understand the meaning and functionality of the product. Without this prior knowledge, it can only be guessed. This emphasised to me the importance of considering cultural norms and conventions when designing a product, as opposed to a focus on affordances only, to ensure its functionality can be easily understood by the target market.

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