Ko K., Ramirez M. and Ward S.
University of New South Wales, Australia

Keywords: product attachment; product lifetime optimization; industrial design; sustainable consumption; household furniture.

Abstract: The study presented in here focuses on sofas to investigate the role of emotional product attachment with a view to reducing premature replacement of furniture products. A framework of four distinct product attachment and detachment factors in relation to the stages of ownership was devised for this research. The framework was applied to an online questionnaire and two sets of interviews among Australian householders, with the aim of determining behaviours in relation to furniture usage, maintenance and disposal. Questionnaire results suggest that furniture owners’ purchase and maintenance behaviours regarding their current sofa are influenced by self-identity, lifestyle, affordability and social factors. The interviews indicated that product attachment can be fostered through more satisfying interaction between owners and their possessions. Long-term emotional attachment has implications for product lifetimes and is an issue that product designers can potentially. address.

Introduction

It is postulated that the lack of strong emotional bonds between product owners and their possessions, is one reason why objects are prematurely discarded. In psychological literature these deep and enduring emotional bonds are explained by the ‘attachment theory’, a concept which helps explain not only why we desire friendships and lasting interconnectedness, but also why we undergo separation anxieties.

Various authors have noted that as owners of possessions we often have particular objects which we cannot bear to part with, or which we particularly want to protect against damage. They suggest that there is an emotional bonding or a ‘person-product relationship’ that exists between owners and their special possessions (Davis, 2002). Behavioural attachment theory has been extended to the inanimate domain, and relabelled as ‘product attachment’ (Savaş, 2004; Mugge, 2007; Schifferstein et al, 2004)

Background

‘Product attachment’ can be defined as the emotional bond that a consumer experiences with a special and significant object (Mugge et al., 2004; Schifferstein et al., 2004) (Figure 1). This psychological connection and shared history results in the assignment of personalized meaning, which helps distinguish one’s beloved teddy bear or mug from similar products on the market (Kleine & Baker, 2004) and signifies why consumers are more likely to hang on to certain products whereas they easily dispose of others (Schifferstein & Zwartkruis- Pelgrim, 2008).

Emotion and attachment to an object may be generated when there is a certain commitment or aspiration for a long-term relationship (Thomson et al., 2005). Thus even if circumstances become difficult, and in spite of love and hate moments, committed owners may be willing to continue the relationship with their possessions. This research proposes that product attachment results whenever there is a strong commitment and emotion towards a product (Figure 2).

Product attachment

Relationship of product attachment, emotion and commitment

People become attached to products for various reasons, such as recurrent pleasurable experiences during interactions, a suitable match with one’s self-identity, and pleasant shared memories. After some time, the object means a lot to the person, to a point where emotional distress could result if damage or loss occurs (Schifferstein & Zwartkruis-Pelgrim, 2008; Savaş, 2004). These strong relationships have been seen to result in more protective behaviours towards products such as taking better care of belongings, preventing wear and tear, and treasuring mementoes of the past. In this sense product attachment may subsequently promote product longevity (Ball and Tasaki, 1992; Mugge et al., 2005).

Proposed framework

The framework developed for this research was adapted from the ‘Four Pleasures’ paradigm promoted by Jordan (2000) based on Tiger’s (1992) theories on human behaviour and the biological mechanism of pleasure. The ‘four pleasures’ model embraces factors involved in product attachment where they have a positive influence on the ‘person-product relationship’ (Davis, 2002). Over the course of time, personal circumstances change and the previously strong relationship to objects might be diminished, leading towards feelings of detachment and subsequent disposal.

A categorization of possible product attachment and detachment factors, based on the four pleasures paradigm, is hereby suggested (Table 1). This classification acknowledges that attachment and detachment are strongly linked to the emotional, hedonic and practical benefits derived from association with our possessions.

Factors of attachment and detachment

Another categorization of product attachment and detachment stages, based on Ball and Tasaki’s (1992) ‘ownership stages’ model, as well as Davis’ (2002) ‘person-product relationship’ lifecycle model, is presented in Table 2.In general, the first three ownership stages are related to positive relationships, whereas the last two carry negative connotations. However, it is expected that a product owner would experience feelings of either attachment or detachment with some of their possessions during various ownership stages, which could either stimulate or dampen their relationship with the product, and thus provide the motivation to either move on to next stage or terminate ownership. For example, if the experiences with a product were positive, the relationship would progress to the mature ownership stage; if the experiences were negative then the relationship with the product would break down and the owner would move on to the pre-disposition stage directly.

On the other hand, even though the person- product relationship was negative at the predisposition stage (signalling detachment) a consumer might positively try to extend their association by refurbishing it or finding alternative uses (signalling attachment).

Stages of product attachment and detachment linked with ownership stages

The two categorizations were integrated into a singular model, which is the proposed framework of this study. This framework reveals how the factors of product attachment and detachment occur in relation to ownership stages (Table 3).

The proposed framework describing the relationship between ownership stages and attachment and detachment factors

The top row of the framework indicates the four factors of product attachment and detachment, while the left column shows the five ownership stages. One or more attachment and detachment factors can apply concurrently within any stage of ownership and particular factors might increase or decrease in relative influence during the stages of ownership.

Methodology

The present study intends to test the proposed framework, and to explore how it could describe product attachment of various types and at various ownership stages.

A decision was made to limit the study to one product type only, and the product selected was the ‘sofa’ (aka ‘couch’ or ‘lounge seat’). This product was deemed appropriate for exploring the presence of long-term attachment, as they are less likely to be driven by technology fads, do not consume energy during use, and are often found dumped on the streets; however they can have potentially long lifetimes if they are well-made.

Structure of online questionnaire used in the study

A five-part online questionnaire (Table 4) was administered to determine the behaviour of Australian householders in their furniture usage, maintenance and disposition, and to investigate their degree of attachment to their furniture as well as the motivations for their underlying detachment. Webmasters of Australian consumer blogs and discussion forums assisted in emailing the questionnaire hyperlink to their members and subscribers; this process yielded 100 valid responses.

From the pool of questionnaire respondents, four volunteered to be interviewed; they are profiled in Table 6. Eight key questions were developed from the framework to investigate consumer attitudes and behaviour in depth. Interviewees were requested to bring a photograph of their most-used sofa. The purposes of the questions in relation to factors of product attachment and detachment are detailed in Table 5.

The research direction was reviewed after the interviews and it was decided to interview people who described themselves as ‘sustainability minded’. These additional participants are profiled in Table 7, and the additional questions asked are listed in Table 8. This extra step intended to find out whether the two groups of interviewees demonstrated different purchase motivations and maintenance behaviours with their sofas.

Semi-structured interview questions

Profiles of participants in first set of semi-structured interviews

Profiles of participants in second set of semi-structured interviews

Additional questions for second set of interviews

Results and discussion

Online questionnaire

More than half of the surveyed males considered their furniture as being unique and personalised, and that they like to take a photograph with their friends or family of their sofa to share a meaningful moment; in contrast only a quarter of females shared these views (Figures 3 and 4). Younger consumers aged 18 to 44 tend to be more driven by contemporary design and colour schemes than older consumers aged 45 to 65 (Figure 5). The youngest consumer group indicated that the length of the warranty period offered was not important to them (Figure 6). It appears that younger people are less likely to experience mature attachment with their products, whereas older consumers with no intention of changing their current furniture seem to have more opportunity to establish an enduring and mature attachment. In addition, younger consumers aged 18 to 24 tended to buy more economical furniture, thus making length of warranty less important to them. Consequently, there is a tendency to replace items of furniture when they can afford better ones, subsequently resulting in increased attachment and relationship with their furniture as they become older.

Agreement with statement on ‘personalisation’ by gender

Agreement with statement on ‘meaningful moments’ by gender

Agreement with the statement on ‘fashion and trend’ by age

Agreement with the statement on ‘length of warranty’ by age

Preferences with the statement on ‘unwanted furniture’ by gender

Preferences with the statement on ‘unwanted furniture’ by age

Overall, 94% of respondents agreed they would either pass their current furniture to someone they know, sell it or give it away to charity rather than organizing a council service to pick it up for disposal.

The views of men and women about unwanted furniture were similar (Figure 7). Interestingly, over 70% of younger respondents aged 18 to 24 stated that they would give their furniture to charity rather than sell it, whereas only an average of 29% of respondents aged 25 to 64 would give it to charity (Figure 8).

Having been designed to follow the stages of ownership, the online survey revealed not only the extent of owners’ emotional attachment to their sofas but also the different levels of affection at different phases of possession; these are summarized in Table 9.

Consumer behaviour over product ownership stages

Semi-structured interviews

When a furniture piece has become less interesting and less reflective of its owner’s identity and lifestyle it is often placed in a less prominent area of the home (Lastovicka and Fernandez, 2005). This ritual of transitioning from being a ‘me’ to a ‘not-me’ object marks the initiation of the detachment stages for the product. In this case, owners may have lost their physical, psychological and sociological attachment with their current furniture. However, their ideological attachment, springing from their concern for the environment, might prevent them from disposing of the furniture completely. This was confirmed in the account of Interviewee 1, a married female in her early 50s who owns a sofa with brocade-like upholstery (Figure 9), when asked: ‘Q5 If you were to replace your current furniture, what would be the main reason?’

“We are building a new house, and I am thinking of getting a new lounge suite for our new home. However I would like to keep the current lounge suite; my lounge is old and I want something new for the new start. But it still does its job and I can still sit on it! But we will probably move them to upstairs or the garage so we can still use them and have the new ones in the main lounge room. I just don’t like throwing stuff out easily; it is not good for nature and all of us.”

Sofa of Interviewee 1

The proposed framework was tested amongst Interviewee 1’s responses regarding her current furniture (Table 10). At the pre- disposition stage she experienced a fusion of physio detachment (“it is old”), psycho detachment (“I want something new for a new start”), socio detachment (“new home”), and ideal attachment: (“I just don’t like throwing stuff out easily”). However she was trying to find a way to keep her current furniture because she experienced idea; attachment at the post- disposition stage (“I’d like to move it upstairs or to the garage so we can still use it”).

Notably, sustainability-minded sofa owners appear to have better maintenance behaviour with their furniture compared to conventional householders. They seemed to enjoy the time spent in maintaining their sofas. Interviewee 9, a married mature adult male, had two sofas: a geometric 1970s sofa and a classic-look 1990s sofa with removable covers (Figure 10). He described his experience of reupholstering his old sofa in response to this question: ‘Q8 What have you done to maintain or repair the quality of your current sofa?’

Attachment or detachment of Interviewee 1 at pre-disposition stage as analysed by the framework

“I have two lounge seats: one from the 1970s and other one from 1990s. I need to fix a few problems with the 1990s lounge that I am using. The side is not sprung properly so I had to find a better spot to sit on the sofa. I think it is due for re-springing and a new cover as well. I have reupholstered the other lounge (1970s) three times already and I did really enjoy the process of recovering its quality. It was a great project for me to get involved in when I was working as a freelancer: I had some extra time. Next time, I would like to use organic cotton fabric for the cover. It is my new challenge”.

The pleasurable involvement of Interviewee 9 with his old sofa was not only associated with product utilization but also with other activities that involved hands-on experiences and commitment to product maintenance. His positive emotional reaction is beyond the person-product relationship, as the service was carried out by the owner himself, rather than the after-care services provided by a furniture- repair company. The satisfaction and meaningful interaction derived from this self- repair process might encourage further preservation desires for his other possessions, such as reupholstering his 1990s sofa. In this way, positive attitudes and behaviours could gravitate towards more sustainable outcomes.

1970s sofa (top) and 1990s sofa (bottom) belonging to Interviewee 9

The purchase motivation of the second set of interviewees was predominantly driven by sustainability and environmental concerns, such as high return on investment, durability, craftsmanship and timeless aesthetics. In addition, the group has a pronounced interest in second hand furniture with the intention of optimizing the lifetimes of used products.

It is possible that the two factors, long-term relationship and commitment might help to distinguish attachment from emotion. It is widely accepted that emotion is not restricted to the length of ownership, as anyone can instantly fall in love with a nicely designed product. The attachment aspects for sustainability minded consumers could be represented in Figure 11.

A diagram of attachment aspects for sustainability-minded consumers

Conclusion

Sustainability can have conflicting implications in different situations. In order for products to be considered sustainably designed, ecological principles, particularly conservation of resources, must be both the basis of and foundation for production. Additionally, the extension of a product’s psychological lifetime should be given equal importance to its physical lifetime in order to circumvent premature product disposal. If products are well-designed, consumers need to derive persistently pleasurable and satisfactory interactions from their use and such enjoyment could enable them to become attached to their possessions.

An obvious benefit of the proposed framework is its potential to support designers in their product development process by means of user scenarios that can be evaluated via the attachment and detachment factors that are inherent in the framework. With this scaffold designers can be assisted in exploring and enhancing the satisfying attributes and pleasurability values that can be embedded into new products and that could promote emotional attachment. Sensitivity to these can help foster stronger person-product relationships during the entire period of ownership, and support the consequent extension or optimization of the overall product lifetime. Ultimately an attachment-oriented solution can encourage consumers to consider retaining their possessions for as long as possible and to avoid their premature disposal.

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