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J PROD INNOV MANAG 2005;22:63–81

r 2005 Product Development & Management Association

The Different Roles of Product Appearance in Consumer Choice

Mariëlle E. H. Creusen and Jan P. L. Schoormans

Product design has been recognized as an opportunity for differential advantage in

the market place. The appearance of a product influences consumer product choice
in several ways. To help product development managers in optimizing the appear-
ance of products, the present study identified the different ways in which the ap-
pearance of a product plays a role in consumer product evaluation and, hence,
choice. In addition, the implications for product design of each role are listed, and
managerial recommendations for optimizing the appearance of products are given.
Based on a literature review, six different roles of product appearance for con-
sumers are identified: (1) communication of aesthetic, (2) symbolic, (3) function-
al, and (4) ergonomic information; (5) attention drawing; and (6) categorization.
A product’s appearance can have aesthetic and symbolic value for consumers, can
communicate functional characteristics and give a quality impression (functional
value), and can communicate ease of use (ergonomic value). In addition, it can
draw attention and can influence the ease of categorization of the product. In a large
qualitative study (N 5 142) it was tested whether these roles indeed exist in con-
sumers’ process of product choice and whether they are sufficient to describe the way
in which product appearance plays a role for consumers. In addition, qualitative in-
sight into these roles was gained. After making a choice between two answering ma-
chines, subjects were interviewed about the reasons for their choice and the product
information they used to form the judgments underlying their choice reasons.
The six appearance roles indeed proved relevant for consumers and were sufficient
to describe the influence of product appearance on product choice. The number of
ways in which appearance played a role for consumers differed between 0 and 5;
most subjects mentioned two different ways in which appearance influenced their
product choice. The aesthetic and symbolic roles were mentioned most often.
The preferred shape (e.g., rounded or angular), color, or size were found to differ
depending on the way in which product appearance played a role for subjects. For
example, bright colors may be valued from an aesthetic point of view but may di-
minish the impression of quality (i.e., functional value). This makes it difficult to
optimize all roles and illustrates that the product value that is most important for
consumers when purchasing a specific kind of product should be the starting point in
the design of the product appearance. Furthermore, the influence of shape, color, or
size on a certain kind of product value—aesthetic, symbolic, ergonomic, or func-
tional—differed between subjects. One person may like a rounded shape, while an-
other may prefer a rectangular shape. This means that the value of guidelines
indicating how the perception of a specific kind of product value can be engendered

Address correspondence to: Mariëlle E. H. Creusen, Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, Department of
Product Innovation and Management, Landbergstraat 15, 2628 CE Delft, The Netherlands. Email:
 We are grateful to the editor of this article, Abbie Griffin, as her comments significantly changed and improved this article.

by means of shape, color, and size is limited. This is especially the case for aesthetic
and symbolic product value, which are very personal. Therefore it is recommended
to test the performance of the appearance of a newly developed product on these six
roles with the target group of consumers.
Insight into the different ways in which appearance characteristics, such as form
and color, may influence consumer choice will increase managers’ awareness about
how to use product appearance as a marketing tool. In addition, distinguishing these
six appearance roles will help product development managers to optimize the prod-
uct appearance better to market needs, as the roles have different and sometimes
even conflicting implications for the design of the product appearance.

Introduction plex and diverse. There are a number of ways in

which product design influences consumer preference

roduct design is an opportunity for differential (Bloch, 1995). The design of a product determines
advantage in the marketplace (e.g., Hammer, consumers’ first impression of the product and quick-
1995; Kotler and Rath, 1984; Löbach, 1976; ly can communicate product advantage. In addition,
Lorenz, 1986; Pilditch, 1976; Veryzer, 1995). A num- the design of a product will generate consumer infer-
ber of companies successfully focus on product design ences regarding several product attributes (Berkowitz,
as a competitive tool (see, e.g., Dumaine, 1991; 1987; Bloch, 1995; Pilditch, 1976). Furthermore,
Nussbaum, 1993; Smith, 1994). Several studies indi- product appearance can provide value in itself;
cate the influence of good product design on com- many people like to buy a product that looks aesthet-
mercial success (e.g., Black and Baker, 1987; Bruce ically pleasing. As the influence of product design on
and Whitehead, 1988; Gemser and Leenders, 2001; consumer evaluation is often complex, it is difficult to
Roy, 1994; Thackara, 1997). Yamamoto and Lambert decide upon during the product development process.
(1994) showed that even for industrial products, ap- For example, a product with bright colors may be
pearance has an influence on product preference. valued aesthetically, but these same colors may give
But what does this mean in practice? Which prod- consumers the idea that the product is of low quality.
uct design will lead to commercial success? To be able To be able to give guidelines for design following
to define some guidelines that can be used in new from its influence on consumer product evaluations, it
product development (NPD), it is necessary to look at is necessary first to answer the question of what ex-
the role of product design in consumer evaluation. actly constitutes the value of a product design for
First, it must be recognized that this role is com- consumers. In order to answer this question, the
present article begins with an overview of the differ-
ent roles of the product design in the purchase deci-
Dr. Mariëlle E. H. Creusen is assistant professor of consumer re-
sion of consumers. More precisely, the influence of
search with the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at Delft what consumers see of the product—that is, its exte-
University of Technology in The Netherlands. She received an rior—in making a purchase decision will be described.
M.Sc. in economic psychology from Tilburg University and a
Therefore, the term product appearance instead of
Ph.D. from Delft University of Technology. She has published in
journals such as the International Journal of Research in Marketing product design will be used, as the design of a prod-
and Advances in Consumer Research. Her current research interests uct also refers to product parts that consumers cannot
include consumer research methods in product development and see (i.e., the interior of the product). On the basis of a
the influence of product appearance factors on consumer product
literature review and a large qualitative study, the im-
plications of these roles for product design and prod-
Dr. Jan P. L. Schoormans is professor of consumer research with
the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of
uct development are described.
Technology in The Netherlands. He received an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in
economic psychology from Tilburg University. He has published in
journals such as the Journal of Product Innovation Management, Product Appearance and Consumer Product
Design Studies, International Journal of Research in Marketing,
Journal of Economic Psychology, and Advances in Consumer Re-
Evaluation: A Literature Review
search. His current research interests include consumer research
methods in the product development process. This section describes the roles of product appearance
in the process of consumer evaluation and choice.

For this aim, literature in the fields of product

development, product design, consumer behavior,
marketing, and human factors has been searched.
The literature shows that the visual appearance of a
product can influence consumer product evaluations
and choice in several ways. Several authors considered
the role of product or package appearance in con-
sumer product evaluation or choice (Bloch, 1995;
Garber, 1995; Garber et al., 2000; Veryzer, 1993;
Veryzer, 1995). However, they did not discuss explic-
itly the different ways in which appearance influences
consumer choice and their respective implications for
product design. In addition to these more recent con-
tributions to the literature, the functions of a product
in consumer–product interaction are described in ear-
lier industrial design literature (Löbach, 1976; Pil- Figure 1. Mobile Phones Differing in Their Aesthetic Appear-
ditch, 1976; Schürer, 1971). Several of these functions ance (reprinted with permission from Nokia Corporation)
concern product appearance. There are differences
between authors in the number of roles (i.e., func- in elements), proportion (e.g., ‘‘the Golden Section’’),
tions) of product appearance they distinguish and the and symmetry (Hekkert, 1995; Muller, 2001; Veryzer,
terms they use. For example, communication of ease 1993; Veryzer and Hutchinson, 1998), and an inverted
of use was mentioned by Bloch (1995) and was de- U-shaped relation is proposed between aesthetic
scribed as part of the aesthetic function by Löbach preference and complexity (Berlyne, 1971). Another
(1976), while Veryzer (1995) called it the communica- property influencing aesthetic judgments is color. The
tive function of a product appearance. If all the roles desirability of a color will change according to the
mentioned in the literature are considered as a whole, object to which it is applied (e.g., a car or a table) and
the following six roles of product appearance for con- with the style of the object (e.g., modern or Georgian)
sumers can be distinguished: (1) communication of (Whitfield and Wiltshire, 1983).
aesthetic, (2) symbolic, (3) functional, and (4) ergo- In addition to (innate) preferences for certain prop-
nomic product information; (5) attention drawing; erties of stimuli, prototypicality is found to influence
and (6) categorization. A description of these six roles the aesthetic response. Prototypicality is the degree to
and their implications for product design follows. which something is representative of a category (see
also the section about categorization). In several stud-
ies, evidence is found for a positive influence of vis-
Product Appearance and Aesthetic Product Value ual prototypicality on aesthetic preference (Hekkert,
1995; Veryzer and Hutchinson, 1998; Whitfield and
The aesthetic value of a product pertains to the pleas- Slatter, 1979). According to Hekkert et al. (2003),
ure derived from seeing the product, without consid- products with an optimal combination of prototypi-
eration of utility (Holbrook, 1980). A consumer can cality and novelty are preferred aesthetically.
value the ‘‘look’’ of a product purely for its own sake, As well as the product-related characteristics pre-
as looking at something beautiful is rewarding in it- viously mentioned, there are cultural, social, and per-
self. When product alternatives are similar in func- sonal influences on design taste. For example, color
tioning and price, consumers will prefer the one that preferences differ between cultures and in time (Whit-
appeals the most to them aesthetically (see, for exam- field and Wiltshire, 1983). In addition, personal fac-
ple, Figure 1). Aesthetic responses are primarily emo- tors, such as design acumen, prior experience, and
tional or feeling responses, and as such they are very personality influence the design taste of consumers
personal (Bamossy et al., 1983). (Bloch, 1995).
Several researchers have tried to determine prop- The influence of an aesthetic judgment on product
erties of products that are related to aesthetic appre- preference can be moderated by the perceived aes-
ciation. Innate preferences are proposed for visual thetic fit of the product with other products the con-
organization principles, such as unity (i.e., congruence sumer owns, or his or her home interior (Bloch, 1995).

Consumers may like a product’s appearance but may

not buy it because it does not fit aesthetically with
their home interior.

Product Appearance and Symbolic Product Value

Consumer goods carry and communicate symbolic

meaning (McCracken, 1986). Symbolic value even can
be the key determinant for product selection (Hirsch-
man and Holbrook, 1982) and can account for the
selection of products that clearly are inferior in their
tangible characteristics (Levy, 1959). An example of
the latter is Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif lemon squeezer
(Lloyd and Snelders, 2003). The choice for a specific
product or brand may convey the kind of person
someone is or wants to be; consumers use products to
express their (ideal) self-image to themselves and to
others (Belk, 1988; Landon, 1974; Sirgy, 1982; Solo-
mon, 1983). Symbolic meaning can be attached to a
product or brand on the basis of, among other things,
advertising (McCracken, 1986), country of origin, or
the kind of people using it (Sirgy, 1982). But the prod-
uct itself also can communicate symbolic value in a
more direct way, namely by its appearance.
A product’s appearance communicates messages Figure 2. Electrical Toothbrushes with an Appearance Sym-
(Murdoch and Flurscheim, 1983), as it may look bolizing Use by Children (Right) or Adults (reprinted with
cheerful, boring, friendly, expensive, rude, or childish permission from Gillette/Oral-B)
(see, for example, Figure 2). In addition, a certain
style of appearance may evoke associations with a ated with aggression (Murdoch and Flurscheim,
certain time or place (e.g., the Fifties). Furthermore, 1983), will make it easier to position a car brand as
the product or package appearance can reinforce the aggressive.
image of a brand, as the identity of a brand is ex- Although there are large individual and time-spe-
pressed visually in the appearance of products (Sch- cific differences in the experience of color and form,
mitt and Simonson, 1997). Consumers may attach the there are certain associations that seem to be relatively
meaning of a brand to elements of the physical ap- constant. Overviews of the influence of form and color
pearance of products. In this way, a brand image may on consumer perception of symbolic value (but also
transfer to different kinds of products (see the section ergonomic and aesthetic value) can be found in Muller
about categorization). Many companies therefore (2001), Murdoch and Flurscheim (1983), Schmitt
make consistent use of certain design elements, such and Simonson (1997), and Whitfield and Wiltshire
as a color combination, a distinctive form element, or (1983). For example, angular forms are associated
style. For example, car manufacturers often try to with dynamism and masculinity, while roundness
keep different car models recognizable as belonging to evokes softness and femininity (Schmitt and Simon-
the same brand. The distinctive radiator grill of BMW son, 1997).
automobiles is an example of a recognizable design Culture is an important determinant of the inter-
element. The linking of brand meaning to elements of pretations that consumers give and the associations
the product appearance will be easier when the asso- they have with certain factors of a product’s appear-
ciations these elements engender by themselves (e.g., ance. For example, color associations vary from cul-
because they are innate or are determined by culture) ture to culture (Whitfield and Wiltshire, 1983). In
correspond to the desired brand image. For example, America and Europe, the color white stands for pu-
use of bright colors and a large size, which is associ- rity, and brides traditionally dress in white; in Japan it

is a color of mourning. Furthermore, meaning is

context dependent. The impression that colors give
may change completely by combining certain colors
(Muller, 2001). Also, the meaning of forms and colors
may change in time, as meanings are continuously
transformed by movements in art, fashion, etcetera
(Muller, 2001).
There is some debate about whether symbolic in-
terpretation is part of the aesthetic experience. In
most literature, aesthetic value is mentioned as both
a hedonic impression and a result of interpretation
and representation (Schmitt and Simonson, 1997;
Vihma, 1995). It is acknowledged in this article that Figure 3. A Larger Hair Dryer (Left) Looks More Powerful
whether a product is conceived of as beautiful is af- (Both are 1875 Watts) (reprinted with permission from Conair
fected by what it represents (Vihma, 1995). The same
style can be considered ‘‘good taste’’ at one point in
time, while being considered ‘‘bad taste’’ 10 years lat- tant but less readily accessible product attributes
er, because the connotations associated with it or the (Berkowitz, 1987; Dawar and Parker, 1994). For ex-
interpretations given to it have changed. For example, ample, subjects may infer on first sight that a larger
orange was a modern color for clothes, furniture, and hairdryer has more power than a smaller one (see
plastic products in the Seventies, generally was per- Figure 3). Or the appearance as a whole may com-
ceived as old-fashioned and ugly in the Eighties, and municate quality by looking reliable or solid (Srini-
became used in products and clothing again in the vasan et al., 1997; Yamamoto and Lambert, 1994).
Nineties. However, the view in this article is that aes- Physical product appearance is an important quality
thetic and symbolic value should be distinguished, as signal for consumers (Dawar and Parker, 1994). As
they may have opposite influences on preference. For Dickson (1994) notes, ‘‘There is also something in-
example, someone who likes a colorful design may not tangible about quality. It resides in the feel, the look,
buy it because it looks ‘‘too childish.’’ the sound of an item. We may not be able to explain
it, but we know it when we see it’’ (p. 263). So product
appearance can be used proactively in order to give
Product Appearance and Functional Product Value consumers a certain impression about the functional
product value.
The functional value of a product pertains to the util-
itarian functions a product can perform (its use)
(Löbach, 1976; Veryzer, 1995). Products differ in the Product Appearance and Ergonomic Product Value
degree to which they are suited to perform their basic
utilitarian function, such as communication or trans- The ergonomic value of a product (see Löbach, 1976;
portation, but also in quality (e.g., by the technology Schürer, 1971; Veryzer, 1995) entails the adjustment
or materials used) and in features. For example, tele- of a product to human qualities. Product ergonomics
phones can be purchased with a redial and a hands- or ‘‘human factors’’ concerns the comprehensibility
free option. The presence of such options influences and usability of a product, the suitability to per-
the functional value of the product for consumers. As form and correctly to communicate its utilitarian
well as reading verbal product information or asking functions. Technical functions can be implemented
others, consumers may form an impression about in a product in a more-or-less easy-to-use manner.
utilitarian functions and product quality on the basis Usability entails cognitive aspects of use, such as how
of a product’s appearance (Bloch, 1995; Dawar and logical a product is to operate, as well as emotional
Parker, 1994). aspects in that it is not frustrating in operation and
The utilitarian functions of a product can be di- gives an enjoyable usage experience (March, 1994).
rectly obvious from its appearance. A handle indicat- Consumers may form an impression about the ease
ed that the product is portable. In addition, product of use on the basis of the product appearance (e.g.,
appearance can be used as a cue to infer more impor- Norman, 1988).

Figure 4. An Easy-to-Operate Telephone (Left) and a More

Complex One (reprinted with permission from Hesdo BV,

Consumers have to experience the operation of a

product in order to judge it adequately. As consumers
often cannot try out products in a shop or when buy- Figure 5. The ‘‘Billy’’ Hand Blender Draws Attention In Store
ing on the Internet, they will use the product appear- by Its Differentiating Colors
ance to form an indication of the ergonomic product
value (see also Bloch, 1995). By seeing the product, that contrast with their background and are novel
people form an impression about whether handles are (unusual or unexpected) (see Engel et al., 1995). Garber
easy and pleasant to hold and whether buttons will be (1995) emphasizes that the visual effect of a product
easy to use (see Figure 4). In order to influence con- package is relative to a background comprised of
sumer preference positively, it is not sufficient that a competitor alternatives. For example, the Philips
product be simply easy to use. Consumers also must ‘‘Billy’’ handmixer (see Figure 5, second one from
perceive the product to be easy to use. The appearance the left) draws attention because of its bright colors,
of the product influences consumer perception of as- which differ from the typical white and other light
pects such as ease of operation, weight, and stability, colors used in this product category. So in order to
which affect the perceived ease of use of a product. design an eye-catching appearance, product alterna-
For example, an upright-shaped product may be de- tives available on the market—and perhaps even the
signed in such a way that it cannot fall over in normal purchase environment—should be taken into account.
use, but consumers may conclude that it is not stable
after seeing it (see Murdoch and Flurscheim, 1983). Product Appearance and Categorization
Based on this first impression, they may discard the
product. Another example is that a small number of Consumers may use product appearance for catego-
controls (such as buttons) makes a product look easy rization (Bloch, 1995; Veryzer, 1995). The appearance
to use (Norman, 1988). of a product can influence the ease with which a prod-
uct is categorized and the category to which it will be
Attention-Drawing Ability of the Product Appearance assigned. Product identification will be easier when a
product resembles other products in the same catego-
Gaining attention is an important first step in ena- ry, that is, when it is more prototypical of the category
bling consumer product purchase. Attention is the (Loken and Ward, 1990). With respect to product ap-
allocation of information processing capacity to a pearance, this means that it should be more visually
stimulus (Engel et al., 1995). When a product stands typical. Garber (1995) defined visual typicality as ‘‘the
out visually from competitive products, chances are look or appearance that most consumers would as-
higher that consumers will pay attention to the prod- sociate with a product category, and by which they
uct in a purchase situation, as it ‘‘catches their eye.’’ identify brands that belong to the category’’ (p. 656).
For food products, the attention-drawing ability of a When a product is difficult to categorize based on its
package has been found to heighten the probability of appearance, consumers may not regard the product as
purchase (Garber, 1995; Garber et al., 2000). a purchase alternative. For example, there might be
In general, the attention-drawing ability of a prod- some consumers who do not notice that the Philips
uct can be enhanced by increasing its size and by using Alessi coffee maker, with its atypical appearance, is a
bright colors. Furthermore, people attend to stimuli coffeemaker (see Figure 6, right picture).

Figure 6. A Typical (Left) and An Atypical (Right) Coffeemaker

Using verbal product descriptions, Meyers-Levy and Figure 7. A Differentiating Appearance Underlines the Unique
Tybout (1989) found that products that differ slightly Mechanism of the Dyson Vacuum Cleaner (reprinted with
permission from Dyson BV)
from the prototype are evaluated more positively than
products that are either very typical or very atypical.
Schoormans and Robben (1997) confirmed this for
package appearances; a slightly atypical appearance On the other hand, when consumers do not find the
catches attention from consumers while remaining ac- purchase important or interesting, a typical appear-
ceptable to them. So in general, an appearance that ance is advisable (Alba and Hutchinson, 1987). Typ-
differs slightly from the prototype will be preferred. In ical members of a category tend to be classified more
some cases, however, strong differentiation from or quickly and accurately (see Loken and Ward, 1990).
strong similarity to the prototype or another product Therefore, consumers tend to buy typical category
alternative will be a beneficial strategy. A description of members in low-involvement purchases, since they
these cases will be treated later in this article. want to minimize their effort (Hoyer, 1984). One
For products for which prestige, exclusiveness, or also can design the appearance of a product to re-
novelty are important, an atypical appearance is ad- semble another well-known and positively valued
visable. For such products, preference declines when product alternative. This heightens the probability
it becomes more widely available and thus more typ- that people evaluate the product based on knowledge
ical, because uniqueness is valued (Ward and Loken, about, or affect toward, the product it resembles,
1988). An atypical appearance also is advisable when which is called exemplar-based categorization (Cohen
a product must be differentiated from other products and Basu, 1987). This strategy may be beneficial when
in the category—for example, when there are many there is one dominant brand in the category with
competing alternatives. Strong differentiation even which it is difficult to compete.
may lead consumers to consider first the product as Similarity to a category prototype or a known ex-
a member of its own individual class (Rosch et al., emplar may provide consumers with expectations
1976, p. 434). Also, new functional attributes are about certain product attributes and thereby about
communicated better by an atypical appearance. Dif- the functional, ergonomic, aesthetic, and/or symbolic
ferentiation from the category decreases comparison value of the product. Based on previous experience
with other products from the category. As a result, with Sony products, one may assume for example that
distinguishing features are noticed better and are new Sony products are easy to operate without eval-
found to be more important (Sujan and Bettman, uating the ease of operation of the specific product at
1989). For example, the Dyson vacuum cleaner differs hand. However, category-based evaluations occur less
in its appearance from the prototypical vacuum clean- often for durables than for fast-moving consumer
er, so that consumers more easily perceive its unique goods (Olshavsky and Spreng, 1996). So for du-
mechanism (see Figure 7). rables, consumers will tend to process the available

information instead of deriving a judgment from cat- front of the subject, who was asked not to touch (and
egorization only. thus possibly open) the product. The subject made a
product choice by indicating the answering machine
that she or he would be most likely to buy.
Product Appearance and Consumers’ Choice After that, an interview into the choice reasons was
Reasons: An Extensive Qualitative Study conducted and was recorded on audiotape. The inter-
viewer first gathered all the subject’s choice reasons,
This qualitative study investigated whether the six after which she probed further into each separate rea-
roles of product appearance for consumers distin- son to be clear about the subject’s precise meaning,
guished on the basis of the literature review indeed
do exist in consumers’ product choices. In addition,
it was assessed whether these six roles sufficiently
describe the way in which consumers use product ap-
pearance in making a product choice or whether ad-
ditional roles should be distinguished. Furthermore,
qualitative insight was gained into these roles by look-
ing at the inferences consumers make from aspects of
the product appearance, the extent of difference in
consumer product perceptions based on product
appearance, and the extent to which these roles are
interrelated. Because a relatively large number of re-
spondents were used in this qualitative study, results
were able to be quantified.

Research Method

In a laboratory setting, subjects made a choice be-

tween two product alternatives, after which they were
interviewed about the reasons underlying their choice.
These choice reasons, and the information on which
they are based, are the focus of the study.
Subjects. Subjects (N 5 146) were selected from a
consumer household panel. About one-half of them
were males, ranging in age from 18 to 65.
Stimuli. Telephone answering machines were used
as the product in the study. Three answering machines
were bought, of which a subset of two was presented
to each subject. In this way there were three different
choice sets; each of them was presented to about one-
third of the sample. The products themselves were
placed in front of subjects, with accompanying cards
showing textual information about four functional
product characteristics derived from product cata-
logues and in-store information (see Figure 8). This
agrees with the way in which durable products gen-
erally are presented in a purchase situation.
Procedure. First, subjects read a description of the
basic functionality of an answering machine. This en-
sured that they at least knew the product’s basic use,
to provide knowledge expected of a consumer actually
buying one. Two answering machines were placed in Figure 8. Stimulus Material

why he or she valued the product attribute concerned, choose between two or more kinds of product value,
and what information he or she used to make the at- most often functional and aesthetic value. For exam-
tribute judgment. Because of the large number of in- ple, one subject chose the digital product even though
terviews, two interviewers were used (one of them she liked the appearance of the other product better.
performed about two-thirds of the total number of Some subjects had to choose between aesthetic value
interviews). and ergonomic value and, for example, chose the at-
The total procedure took about 20 minutes, after tractive-looking product even though the other prod-
which each subject received a written debriefing and a uct looked easier to operate. In total, 19 subjects
small monetary compensation. chose product alternative D; 49 subjects chose F; and
74 subjects preferred G (see Figure 8).
Analysis and Results Now a description of the results for each of the six
roles separately is provided. The quotations have been
The interviews into the choice reasons were tran- translated from Dutch into English by the authors.
scribed fully. These transcriptions were the basis for Keep in mind that every subject was able to mention
data analysis. Data of 142 subjects were used (a total several different choice reasons and also several
of four subjects either possessed one of the products choice reasons belonging to one category. The num-
from their choice set, had handled the products ber of appearance roles mentioned by subjects varies
against instructions, or did not understand the basic from one to five; the mode is two. Figure 9 shows the
use of an answering machine). Two judges (of which percentage of subjects mentioning each number of
one was also an interviewer) independently catego- product appearance roles. Subjects mentioning zero
rized each subject’s considerations that played a role appearance roles based their choice on the card infor-
in the product choice and were based on the product mation. Figure 10 shows the percentage of subjects
appearance (i.e., were not based on the card informa- that mentioned each of the different appearance roles.
tion). Choice reasons that did not fit into one of the Aesthetic role. This role was mentioned most of-
categories were assigned to a ‘‘remaining’’ category. ten: 65% of the subjects (92) mentioned an attractive
There were not many differences between the judges, product appearance as a choice reason. An additional
and these were discussed until an agreement was 10% mentioned the attractiveness of the appearance
reached. but did not base their choice on it because other as-
The six roles of the product appearance—commu- pects were more important to them. Aspects men-
nication of aesthetic, symbolic, functional, and ergo- tioned to play a role in the aesthetic attractiveness are
nomic product information; attention drawing; and
categorization—proved sufficient to categorize all 40
choice reasons based on product appearance. A few
reasons did not fit into the six categories of appear-
ance roles; they concerned textual information drawn
from the appearance, such as brand name or the lan- 30

guage of the words underneath the buttons (i.e., in

Dutch versus in English).
The relative importance of the appearance roles

differed between subjects. Some subjects valued aes-
thetics the most, while others found functionalities or
quality far more important. Age did not influence the
frequency of mentioning a specific appearance role;
gender only influenced concern about whether the
product fit with the home interior and attention draw-
ing (see the aesthetic role and attention-drawing role
following). A number of subjects considered one
product alternative superior with respect to one kind 0 1 2 3 4 5
of product value (e.g., aesthetic value) and the other Number of appearance roles
alternative with respect to another kind of product Figure 9. Percentage of Subjects Mentioning Each Number of
value (e.g., ergonomic value). As a result, they had to Product Appearance Roles

70 Half of these subjects liked this closed look, as it

makes the product a compact whole. As one subject
60 said, ‘‘I found that G still has something cozy about it,
also because of the display, I think, and that other one
was such a closed whole . . .’’ The other half disliked a
closed impression, because it looked less friendly and
sympathetic. One subject said, ‘‘Well, that appliance
40 totally was a closed box, such a black box, and

that other one made at least a, yes . . . a bit more

30 of a friendly impression, it seemed to look a bit
more open.’’
Subjects (32) preferred a certain color because they
liked it better or because it fit into their home envi-
ronment. One subject said, ‘‘so I picture it next to the
10 black couch and the black telephone, then that thing
completely fits in.’’ Several subjects wanted a dark or
0 black color, and some preferred a neutral or soft col-
aesthetic ergonomic attention drawing or. Also, several subjects (10) preferred a product in
symbolic functional categorization
one color as opposed to multiple colors (i.e., alterna-
Figure 10. Percentage of Subjects that Mentioned Each of the tive D with its two-colored casing and white buttons),
Different Appearance Roles
because this makes the product a unified whole and
looks more tranquil. For example, one subject said
about alternative D, ‘‘The buttons also attracted a
overall roundedness, size, color, and specific details. little attention, in my opinion, because they had a
Several subjects found it difficult to indicate why they different color. It just isn’t a whole.’’
found a specific product more aesthetically attractive, Some subjects mentioned visual organization prin-
as it was an instinctive judgment. ciples as a basis for their aesthetic preference. Unity
Forty-five percent of all subjects (64) liked a was mentioned by a few subjects, referring to the use
rounded product (i.e., alternative F or G), because of one instead of more colors (see the quotation in the
this looked modern to them. They perceived this as previous paragraph). Symmetry was mentioned by
suiting the contemporary design trend, as many mod- one subject, who said, ‘‘And in addition it was sym-
ern products are rounded (e.g., cars, car stereos). For metrical, say, in its length. I also always like that a bit
example, one subject said, ‘‘And you also see that with myself.’’
a lot of audio equipment. All that has a more rounded Many subjects (33, or 23.2%) mentioned details
design than previously, really.’’ Only very few subjects that played a role in their aesthetic judgments, often
mentioned disliking a rounded shape; one of them only after the interviewer probed for this. Some (6)
said, ‘‘I personally don’t like rounded sides and such liked the little purple button on alternative F, because
things . . . a bit trendy.’’ Many subjects disliked alter- it was perceived as funny and playful. Nine subjects
native D because it is rectangular and straight. Only disliked the buttons on alternative D, as they ‘‘lay on
three subjects liked such a shape. top of the product,’’ while integrated buttons (on al-
Many subjects (12) aesthetically preferred a smaller, ternative F and G) make a product smoother. The
compact product, as a larger product is ungainly and obtrusiveness of the buttons on alternative D is rein-
obtrusive. Many subjects considered alternative D to forced by their contrasting white color. Some subjects
be too big. For example, one subject said, ‘‘I really liked or disliked the presence of a display from an
liked the shape of that small one. I found the other aesthetic point of view or chose the product with a
one a bit . . . yes, if you place it in your room, not so more attractive display. One subject said, ‘‘Such a
. . . a bit crude . . . I do not like all those big things in display with numbers, I don’t need that . . . That
my room.’’ doesn’t look nice in my opinion.’’ Some idiosyncrat-
Several (8) subjects mentioned the ‘‘closed’’ impres- ic reasons concerned, for example, the size of the
sion of alternative F. Alternative G looks more holes in the grid in front of the loudspeaker and the
‘‘open,’’ as it has a display and a bigger button. material.

Twenty-four subjects (16.9%) mentioned that the more of a modern car radio.’’ In addition to the as-
product had to fit aesthetically into their home envi- sociations just mentioned, other associations evoked
ronment or with other products they already own by alternative F were ‘‘playful,’’ ‘‘female,’’ ‘‘cute with
(such as their telephone). For this reason, many of that sweet little purple button,’’ ‘‘elegant,’’ ‘‘refined,’’
these subjects valued a dark or neutral-colored prod- ‘‘chic,’’ ‘‘more sexy,’’ ‘‘yuppie-like,’’ ‘‘flowing,’’ ‘‘more
uct and a modern-looking product (only two subjects funny,’’ ‘‘more hi-tech-like,’’ but also ‘‘businesslike’’
found that a less modern answering machine suited and ‘‘boring.’’ Specific remarks referring to alter-
their homes better). For example, one subject said native G were ‘‘cozier,’’ ‘‘less boring,’’ ‘‘more flair,’’
that ‘‘the other answering machine would fit less into ‘‘playful,’’ ‘‘more serious,’’ and ‘‘common.’’
my home interior’’ (referring to alternative D). She Functional role. Many subjects (49.3%) based their
further explained that it was ‘‘because we have a product choice on the textual information about func-
modern interior design with black furniture.’’ Females tionalities that was presented with the products on
more often mentioned the aesthetic fit into their home cards. However, for 18 subjects (12.7%) the appear-
as a choice reason than males (w2 5 4.68, po.05). ance influenced the perceived functional product val-
Symbolic role. Almost one-half of all subjects (68, ue. Five subjects (3.5% of the total sample) derived
or 47.9%) mentioned that the symbolic meaning or information about functionalities from the product
associations of the product appearance played a role appearance, namely the presence of a display or a
in their product choice. Additionally, some subjects small indication light. One subject based her choice on
considered symbolic aspects but found other aspects the fact that she saw a rewind button on alternative G,
more important on which to base their choice. Almost which she did not see on alternative F. In addition,
all subjects mentioning symbolic aspects mention it as two subjects explicitly mentioned wanting as few fea-
part of an aesthetic judgment; only some mentioned a tures as possible. According to them, these ‘‘bells and
modern, friendly, or serious look as a choice reason whistles’’ made the product more vulnerable so that it
without explicitly calling it aesthetically attractive—so would break down more easily, and these added fea-
symbolic and aesthetic value often were intertwined. tures often are not used anyway.
Symbolic associations mentioned by several sub- Eleven subjects (7.8% of the sample) derived an
jects included ‘‘expensive’’ or ‘‘cheap,’’ ‘‘playful,’’ impression about the reliability and durability of the
‘‘friendly,’’ ‘‘businesslike,’’ ‘‘soft,’’ ‘‘sympathetic,’’ product from its appearance. They chose the product
‘‘boring,’’ and ‘‘hi-tech.’’ Several subjects (6) men- that looked to them more solid or reliable (most often
tioned that alternative D gave a cheap impression be- alternative G), because that signified that the product
cause of its crude and simple shape. One subject would last longer. Some subjects found it difficult to
noted, ‘‘Look, obviously straight shapes are easier to specify the characteristics responsible for this; a few
manufacture. Therefore I interpret them as cheaper.’’ mentioned that it was their first impression or some-
Many subjects (38) mentioned a modern or contem- thing instinctive. Nevertheless, several subjects men-
porary (alternative F or G) versus an old-fash- tioned elements that engendered this impression, such
ioned or even obsolete impression (alternative D) as as a flap or display that could break easily, a turning
a choice reason. A great deal of these subjects men- instead of sliding volume button, a large size, or the
tioned that roundedness or a streamlined shape brings roundedness or rather the squareness of the product.
about this modern look. This roundedness also made For example, one subject said about alternative G, ‘‘It
alternative F and G look friendly, sympathetic, and looked more reliable, a bit more solid. It was a bit
soft. In contrast, the rectangular straight product (al- larger.’’ He explained why it looked more solid: ‘‘the
ternative D) looked old-fashioned, ungainly, bombas- size was decisive . . . maybe the shape—it was broader
tic, harsh, and cheap to subjects. They associated than the other one.’’ A few subjects inferred from a
alternative D with an old cassette player, a cigar product’s modern styling (referring to the more
box, a box of bricks, and a bread tin. Many men- rounded shape of alternative F or G) that the prod-
tioned alternative F as resembling a portable compact uct was technologically superior, because it had been
disc (CD) player or Discman, which some thought designed more recently. The following part of an in-
gave it a contemporary look or thought it was hu- terview illustrates why one subject prefers a modern-
mourous. For example, one subject mentioned that looking answering machine: ‘‘Yes, maybe it will last
alternative D reminded him of ‘‘an old-fashioned cas- longer that way, [it] looks more reliable . . . The other
sette player,’’ while alternative F ‘‘reminds me much one [alternative D] looks as if it is prehistoric, as if it is

out of date or something, that is the impression it that buttons that are integrated into the surface make
makes . . . old.’’ However, another subject preferred the product easier to handle, and another subject
alternative D for its ‘‘more functional appearance,’’ as found this easier to clean. They therefore did not
he thought that ‘‘most often with these futuristic choose alternative D with its protruding buttons.
products, they look slick and finished, but they are Attention-drawing role. Of the 14 subjects (9.9%
usually not really solid’’ (referring to alternative F). of the total sample) who mentioned the attention-
Ergonomic role. About one-third of the subjects drawing ability of one of the product alternatives,
(51, which is 35.9%) mentioned reasons concerning 13 preferred the less attention-drawing alternative (al-
usability as a basis for their choice. Of these, 34 sub- ternative F or G, see Figure 8). Almost all of them
jects mentioned operational aspects, such as the vis- found alternative D to be too conspicuous because it
ibility of the display or the size, number, clarity, or was too big and because its buttons were in a con-
placing of the buttons. For example, one subject who trasting color. They preferred a product that would be
chose alternative G instead of F, said, ‘‘. . . and also less conspicuous in their home, or as one subject
the buttons on it, they were just a bit more clear, just called it, ‘‘harmless in the interior of my home.’’ An-
one button to play and rewind et cetera. The other other subject stated that an answering machine is a
one, it had one button, but it did not exactly say what functional product that ‘‘strictly speaking, you do not
it was for . . .’’ Several subjects found the buttons of want to see.’’ Therefore, these subjects preferred a
alternative D clear and the button of alternative F too smaller product that could be put away easily and that
small, although several others preferred alternative G had a more neutral color.
or F to D because it had one instead of two buttons Only one subject chose the product that drew her
on top. Nine subjects wanted a product with as few attention by its design. She explained her preference
buttons as possible; according to them, more buttons for the appearance of alternative G as follows: ‘‘Well,
are only confusing and heighten the likelihood of it is more like a whole, the impression it makes on me,
making mistakes. As one subject said, ‘‘. . . The sim- does it attract my attention and does it satisfy my
pler the design, the less easily it will break down . . . wishes . . .’’ Another subject stated that although she
and a lot of buttons—that is simply confusing.’’ A few chose the less attention-drawing product, she might
subjects preferred a separate button for each function buy a specially designed product that draws a lot of
instead of one button having several functions. Seven attention but looks very attractive at the same time.
subjects preferred alternative G because they could Females significantly more often mention attention
see immediately how it worked: it had clear buttons drawing as a choice reason than males (w2 5 8.80,
that were labeled clearly so that the possibilities were po.01).
clear, while alternative F was closed so that how it Categorization role. Eleven subjects (7.8%) men-
worked was not obvious from just looking at it (see tioned visual categorization as playing a role in their
Figure 8). Two subjects preferred the product alter- product choice. Categorization also may have a sub-
native that operates similar to their own answering conscious influence and thus may have played a role
machine. for more subjects, but the remarks of these 11 subjects
In addition to operational aspects, more general as- provide some insight into how visual categorization
pects of use were mentioned. Such general aspects are plays a role for consumers.
not related to the direct operation of the product, but A few subjects preferred alternative G because it
to more indirect consequences of use, such as the space was more recognizable as an answering machine—
needed by the product (e.g., whether it fits on a table), that is, easy to categorize—but found it difficult to
the ease of cleaning, or the likelihood of accidentally explain why. For example, one subject explained
hurting someone. Fourteen subjects valued a small size why she liked the appearance of alternative G better
(i.e., alternative G or F instead of D) because a small than F: ‘‘I found it more recognizable, the other one,
product needs less space and is easier to hide in a that looked like . . . what is it called? . . . a CD player
drawer. Four subjects chose alternative D because it is . . . Well, in my eyes it looks more like an answering
square instead of rounded and therefore fits more eas- machine.’’
ily into a corner or between other things. In contrast, Others preferred something different from a stand-
two subjects valued a rounded product (alternative F ard box, something more special that does not look
or G), as it is easier to handle and is less likely to hurt ordinary (i.e., is less prototypical). Two subjects ex-
someone (i.e., no sharp edges). One subject mentioned plicitly preferred a product that was less recognizable

as an answering machine and that was less plain. Sub- Table 1. The Six Roles of Product Appearance for
jects valuing an atypical product chose alternative F Consumers
or G. One subject said, ‘‘I would in first instance con- Appearance Role Influence on Consumers
sider the one I chose as a portable CD player instead
of an answering machine, so in that sense somewhat Attention Draw consumer attention in-store
less recognizable as an answering machine.’’ When
asked whether and why he prefers this, he said, ‘‘Well, Categorization Influence ease of categorization
Offer possibility for differentiation
I just like to . . . in everything I buy. . . to not pick the from the product category
Functional Show features/functionalities
Four subjects preferred alternative F or G because Serve as a cue for features/functionalities
it reminded them of another product, namely a port- Serve as a cue for technical quality
able CD player or modern car radio. They found it Ergonomic Show parts for consumer-product
difficult to explain why but thought that it was a kind interaction
of recognition; they were used to this look. For ex- Show consequences of use of
overall appearance aspects
ample, one subject said, ‘‘That rounded one appeals (e.g., size, roundedness)
to me, yes, I don’t know why, maybe because it also
Aesthetic Serve as a basis for aesthetic appreciation
looks a bit like a portable CD player or something . . . Fit with home interior and other
that appeals more to me.’’ When asked why, she said, products owned
‘‘Maybe because it is a bit more familiar, I don’t know Symbolic Serve as a basis for symbolic product
. . .’’ One subject disliked alternative D because it re- associations
minded him of an old-fashioned cassette player. Communicate brand image
Interrelations. In several cases, some roles were in-
terrelated. Attention drawing and aesthetic value of-
ten were linked: subjects found an attention-drawing Conclusion and Discussion
product less aesthetically attractive. Indeed, the cor-
relation between attention-drawing and aesthetic This study distinguishes six roles of product appear-
choice reasons is significant (Spearman’s rho 5 .25, ance for consumers on the basis of a literature review
po.01). Furthermore, symbolic and aesthetic values and shows in a qualitative study that these roles are
often were intertwined. Subjects mention symbolic as- relevant for consumers and are sufficient to describe the
sociations in explaining why they found the product influence of product appearance in consumer choice. In
aesthetically attractive, which agrees with Vihma addition, insight is gained into the information con-
(1995). Indeed, correlation analysis shows that aes- sumers use and the inferences they make from the ap-
thetic and symbolic reasons often co-occur (Spear- pearance of a product. An overview of the roles and
man’s rho 5 .54, po.001). Also, for some subjects, their influence on consumers is provided in Table 1.
symbolic and functional values were linked, as they Aesthetic value often will be important to consum-
felt that a modern-looking answering machine would ers for durable products, as these products are often
be technologically superior. As this concerned only a used for many years and are visible in consumer’s
small number of subjects, this is not expressed in a homes or to other people. Indeed, the majority of
significant correlation between functional and sym- subjects in this study considered aesthetic value in
bolic choice reasons. However, there was a significant their product choice, and several subjects considered
correlation between categorization and symbolic whether the product fitted aesthetically into their
choice reasons (Spearman’s rho 5 .20, po.05), which home. In this study some subjects were observed giv-
probably is due to the fact that several subjects ing up functionalities in favor of aesthetic value. This
thought answering machine F looked modern or con- study’s subjects mentioned roundedness, size, color,
temporary because it resembled a portable CD player and specific details as a basis for their aesthetic judg-
(i.e., another product category). In addition, the cor- ment, although some subjects found it difficult to ver-
relation between categorization and aesthetic choice balize precisely why a specific product alternative
reasons was on the border of significance (Spearman’s looked more attractive to them. In general, a small,
rho 5 .16, p 5 .05). This can be explained by the fact rounded answering machine in one neutral, dark color
that subjects liked an appearance that looked or did was preferred aesthetically, although some subjects
not look like a typical answering machine. had different preferences. The fact that only very few

subjects mentioned visual organization principles as Almost one-third of the subjects that mentioned usa-
causing their aesthetic preference is not surprising, bility wanted a small number of buttons on an an-
as the influence of such principles largely will be swering machine, because they believed this made it
unconscious (Veryzer, 1999). Although prototypical- simpler to operate. They considered more buttons
ity was not mentioned explicitly, many subjects pre- simply to be confusing. This agrees with the notion
ferred a rounded product because it suits the that simplicity of operation will be a more dominant
contemporary design trend and as such is prototypi- sales argument than variety of functional characteris-
cal for contemporary products. tics (Hammer, 1995; Nussbaum, 1988). Clear opera-
Symbolic value was mentioned as a choice reason tion will be especially important for technologically
by almost one-half of the sample. Subjects mentioned complex products. Many electronic products are so
several associations, such as expensive, friendly, or complex that they are almost unusable, and many
businesslike. A modern or contemporary look was consumers even find high-tech products intimidating
important to more than one-quarter of the subjects. (Feldman, 1995). In addition to parts for consumer–
Aesthetic and symbolic values often were intertwined. product interaction, such as buttons and displays, this
For example, many subjects liked a rounded appear- study revealed that overall aspects of the appearance,
ance because it looks modern and friendly. It however such as size, roundedness, and material, influence the
may be good to acknowledge the difference between (perceived) ergonomic product value. These aspects
these two kinds of product value. Someone might like influence more indirect consequences of use, such
a certain appearance but might not purchase it because as the space needed by the product (e.g., whether it
the symbolic associations are not suited to her or his fits on a table), the ease of handling the product, or
person (e.g., a childlike appearance for an adult) or to the ease of cleaning. So in investigating the usability
the occasion (think of use at home versus at work). of a product, attention should be given not only
A few subjects derived functionalities from the to (the perception of ) operational aspects but also
product appearance. In addition, several subjects de- to these more indirect consequences of use, as these
rived an impression about the functional quality of also play a role in product choice.
the product from its appearance. They chose the prod- In contrast to food products, where a positive rela-
uct alternative that looked the most reliable or solid tion is found between the ability of a package to draw
but found it difficult to indicate the characteristics re- attention and product choice, all but one of the sub-
sponsible for this impression. This agrees with the lit- jects in this study that mentioned attention drawing as
erature, where it is noted that the global impression of playing a role in their product choice chose the less at-
the product appearance can communicate quality tention-drawing product alternative—the reason being
(Srinivasan et al., 1997; Yamamoto and Lambert, that they did not want the product to be conspicuous in
1994). Whether and what inferences are formed on their home. Indeed, products that draw attention in
the basis of the product appearance will differ be- store often are conspicuous and may not be the same
tween consumers. A knowledgeable and interested ones that are found to be aesthetically attractive. Aes-
consumer will be able and be willing to assess the val- thetic considerations will be more important to con-
ue of most technical product functions. However, sumers for durable products than for fast-moving
other consumers may use heuristics such as ‘‘more consumer goods, as durable products are used for a
buttons mean more functions.’’ Information about longer period and often are visible in one’s home and
how subjects form judgments about functional prod- for other people. So although an atypical product ap-
uct value on the basis of product appearance can be pearance can be a suitable way of attracting attention
used proactively to attune product appearance to con- for durable products, care has to be taken to ensure
sumer perception. This increases the likelihood that that this atypical look is acceptable aesthetically for
consumers will make accurate judgments about the consumers.
functional product value, for ‘‘it is not enough to bury Concerning visual categorization, several subjects
quality in a product, it must be seen and experienced preferred the most typical looking answering machine
to be recognized and believed’’ (Dickson, 1994, p. 263). but found it difficult to explain why. Others preferred
More than one-third of the sample mentioned an atypical, and thereby less common and ordinary,
choice reasons concerning usability. Two-thirds of answering machine. This confirms that the preference
them mentioned operational aspects, of which one- for typicality (or lack thereof) differs between con-
half referred to the number or size of the buttons. sumers. The choice whether to develop a typical, a

slightly atypical, or a very atypical appearance will functional or ergonomic product value from catego-
depend on the target group of consumers and the kind rization of the product appearance; similarity to a
of product. In the literature review section, cases are well-known product category exemplar of high-tech-
listed in which it is beneficial to develop a very typical nical quality may lead consumers to infer that the
or an atypical appearance. product at hand is also of good quality.
The aesthetic and symbolic appearance roles were As some roles can be interrelated, changes in one
far more salient to consumers, and the appearance role may influence other roles. In addition, the pre-
influenced perceived ergonomic value for one-third of ferred shape (e.g., rounded or angular), color, or size
the subjects (see Figure 10). The functional role of the were found to differ depending on the way in which
appearance is mentioned less. This does not mean that product appearance played a role for subjects. For
functionalities were not important: 57.7% of the sam- example, a small size is valued from an aesthetic point
ple based their choice on functionalities. However, of view, but a larger size is chosen by some subjects
most of these were derived from the textual informa- because it looks more solid and reliable (i.e., func-
tion presented with the products themselves, and only tional value). So when something is changed in the
12.7% of the subjects mentioned the appearance as a product appearance in order to improve its perform-
basis for a judgment about the functional product ance on one role, this has implications for the per-
value. The attention-drawing and categorization roles formance on other roles.
were mentioned less often. It may be that consumers
are not always conscious of their influence (see the
section about future research). The relative impor- Managerial Implications
tance of the appearance roles was not the focus of the
present study. Since a small number of product alter- The appearance of a product can influence consumer
natives was used, the influence of the appearance roles choice in different ways. Distinguishing these different
in this study may not be indicative for answering ma- appearance roles will help managers to make better
chines in general. For example, the answering ma- use of product appearance as a marketing tool.
chines in this study had one or two buttons and a
volume slider; an alternative with more buttons would
have increased the incidence with which subjects men- Focus on the Most Important Appearance Roles
tion ease of operation as a choice reason. However, it
is striking that aesthetic value played a role for so To use the potential of product appearance fully in
many subjects, while the answering machines used in influencing consumer choice, the appearance should
this study do not differ that much in their appearance communicate the central consumer advantage to con-
(they are all dark-colored, flat shapes). There were sumers and should fit the product’s market position-
more subjects that partly based their choice on aes- ing (see also Just and Salvador, 2003). To make
thetics than on functionalities. This may indicate the optimal use of product appearance, the marketing
importance of aesthetics in consumers’ product selec- department or product development team should con-
tion. However, the relative importance of the appear- sider explicitly the impression they want the appear-
ance roles will differ between product categories and ance to communicate. The most important value to
consumers (see the section about future research). consumers in purchasing a specific kind of product
This study revealed several examples of interrela- should be the starting point in the design of the prod-
tions between appearance roles. Significant correla- uct appearance (Bruce and Whitehead, 1988). There-
tions exist between aesthetic and symbolic product fore, it is recommended that product designers know
value, aesthetic value and attention drawing, and cat- in an early stage whether aesthetics, ease of use, tech-
egorization and aesthetic as well as symbolic value. nical quality, or features are most important in the
No correlations of functional or ergonomic value with brand choice for the target group of consumers. For
other appearance roles were significant. However, for the product shape, colors, materials, and configura-
some subjects symbolic and functional value were tion that are preferred—or that engender positive
linked, and some relations between roles might not product perceptions—depend on the product value
have surfaced in this research (e.g., because of the that is important to the consumer. For example, a
small number of product alternatives used). Consum- larger size may make a product look more old-fash-
ers may derive, for example, an impression about the ioned and crude, more solid and stable, less easy to

store, easier to operate (as buttons are bigger or far- fashioned according to another. In the present study,
ther apart), and heavier in weight. Whether a larger many subjects mentioned that roundedness looks
size is preferable therefore will depend on whether modern and friendly and that angularity looks old-
aesthetic value, technical quality, or ease of use is fashioned and cheap. However, this may be specific
more important to consumers. for the product category, the year, or the country in
Different appearances can be made for groups of which the study is conducted. One should keep in
consumers that differ in the product value that is most mind that the aesthetic and symbolic value of a prod-
important in their choice. For example, people who uct may differ between cultures and in time and even
need glasses may prefer an alarm clock with buttons may depend on the context (the available product al-
that have a bright contrasting color as opposed to the ternatives or the store surroundings). General design
casing, so they can locate the buttons better in a dark guidelines therefore will be less reliable for the aes-
room. Other people may dismiss such a product on thetic and symbolic roles of the product appearance.
aesthetic grounds. Testing with consumers therefore is even more im-
portant for aesthetic and symbolic value, especially as
these roles seemed to be the most influential—at least
Are Design Guidelines Valuable? in the present study.

Several influences of appearance characteristics, such

as color and form, on the perception of certain kinds Testing the Appearance with Consumers
of product value have been mentioned in the literature
or are intuitive. Subjects in the present study also To make sure that the appearance of a new product
mentioned such influences. For example, a bigger has a positive influence on product choice, this should
product looks more solid, bright colors may diminish be tested with consumers. One should assess whether
a quality impression, and a large number of buttons consumer perceptions of the functional, ergonomic,
decreases the impression of ease of use (Norman, aesthetic, and symbolic value of a new product on the
1988). What is the value of such design guidelines? basis of its appearance are positive and correct. This
Is it useful to investigate such influences? can be done by asking consumers to judge the func-
Although product designers intuitively will feel tionalities, quality, ease of use, and aesthetic and
how to engender a certain impression, the present au- symbolic value of the product on the basis of its ap-
thors think that research into the influence of specific pearance only. Because there are cultural, social, and
appearance elements on the perception of certain personal influences on design taste (Bloch, 1995), it is
kinds of product value may help them in this. How- important to use the correct target group in such
ever, the intuition of the designer remains essential, as a test.
the effect of combining separate characteristics into a If a design does not engender the right impression
whole cannot be predicted. Furthermore, the value of on one of these aspects, one might ask consumers how
such guidelines differs for different kinds of product to improve it (e.g., ‘‘why do you think the quality of
values. The influence of appearance characteristics on this product is low?’’). Consumers are able to do this
the perception of utilitarian aspects, such as quality, for functional and ergonomic aspects; they are able to
ease of use, and functionality, probably will be similar indicate that a display is too small, that buttons are
over product categories, persons, and countries. Peo- too close together, or that certain features are un-
ple will agree that larger buttons are easier to operate wanted. But consumers have more difficulty in indi-
and that a product with a display looks more func- cating how aspects such as quality impression and
tionally complex than one without a display. So for aesthetic and symbolic value can be improved, as
functional and ergonomic value, such guidelines are these aspects concern the overall impression of the
reliable, and general research into the influence of appearance. The effect of changes in appearance char-
specific appearance characteristics on their perception acteristics on the whole product impression is difficult
will be useful. However, there will be more difference to imagine for consumers. For a consumer, the value
between consumers in aesthetic and symbolic percep- of certain characteristics, such as color, may change
tion, since such matters of taste and experience are when the rest of the product changes (cf. Holbrook
more subjective. A large size makes a certain product and Moore, 1981). With one product style, blue may
look modern according to one consumer and old- be the most attractive color, while with another style,

green may work better, so consumers have to see a answering machines but also for other product
change in appearance in order to judge it adequately. categories. In addition, it often is assumed that old-
Furthermore, a consumer often will be unable to spec- er people pay more attention to ease of use. The
ify why she or he likes or dislikes a certain appear- present authors could not find any research that sup-
ance, which is descriptive of holistic judgments (see ports this assumption, and the question remains from
Kemler Nelson, 1989; Mittal, 1988). For example, what age on people start paying more attention to
most people probably are unaware of the influence of ease of use.
visual organization principles on their judgments (see Also, the question remains to what extent the per-
Veryzer, 1993; Veryzer, 1999). A possible solution to ceptions that subjects mentioned on the basis of prod-
this problem is showing consumers a great deal of uct appearance generalize to other products (which
pictures of products they can use to point out what may differ for utilitarian and expressive product val-
they mean or which products fit an intended impres- ue, see above). Examples are that a rounded product
sion. This may give the design team clues about how looks more modern, a square product looks more
to better engender a specific impression. solid but also old-fashioned, a larger product looks
more solid, and a modern rounded shape looks tech-
nologically superior (i.e., newer). The same goes for
Future Research consumers’ preferences. Many want a small number
of buttons, as many buttons are confusing. Further-
The research method used in the present study only more, subjects liked a product in one color as opposed
gave insight into the conscious use of information by to more colors and liked integrated buttons, which
consumers. The influence of attention drawing and make it a unified whole. As mentioned already, these
categorization, and perhaps the impression of quality, perceptions and preferences may differ in time be-
also may take place subconsciously. This may explain tween groups of consumers and between countries.
why only few subjects mentioned these appearance The extent to which this is the case is also an issue for
roles. The influence of these roles on consumer prod- further research.
uct choice may therefore have been underestimated.
Future research may give a more accurate insight
into the influence of these roles in consumer prod-
uct choice.
In addition, it will be interesting to investigate the
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