How IT products serve social goals

Friday, August 19, 2016
by Cameron Shelley

The slogan "form follows function" has long been associated with a minimalist view of good design.  On the positive side, it has been used to mean that designs should be configured to fulfil their intended goals.  On the negative side, it has been used to limit those goals to so-called basic needs only, to the exclusion of social goals.

Yet, people clearly want designs for their social utility, among other things.  A recent study illustrates how the smartwatch, a fairly novel, high-tech gadget, is wanted for its social utility as well as its smart function.

The study surveyed a number of people online about themselves and their intention to use a smartwatch.  Subjects were rated on their personal vanity (need to maintain positive appearances) and need for uniqueness (need to distinguish oneself from others).

The study's conclusions on these points will probably not surprise you:

The results showed that individuals with a high level of vanity would consider using smartwatches to be more enjoyable. Furthermore, one’s need for uniqueness was found to be a critical predictor of how much one would perceive smartwatches to be enjoyable and useful for expressing oneself.

In short, a person's desire to use a smartwatch depends, in part, on its ability to help them signal a positive impression to others.  

At the same time, self-signaling may be at work too.  That is, smartwatches may help people to reinforce their self-image as someone who is up-to-date and high-tech.

To what extent smartwatch design should emphasize these factors is open for debate.  Modernists tend to downplay social goals as inessential or emotional, as opposed to strictly functional or dispassionate.  Others argue that emotions and social goals are fundamental to a good life.

Whatever your view, it is instructive to note that even fairly everyday design issues involve us in discussion of broader matters of how it is people ought to live.

Sony smartwatch on a wrist.
Courtesy of Rico-U/Wikimedia commons.