In today’s marketplace, the consumer is extracting meaning from the goods they surround themselves by which in turn has become a method through which they can design their identity.
In an age of micro-interactions, collaborative consumption, along with omnipresent products and services the consumer is faced with many challenges in doing so. While products and services are beginning to ‘streamline’ and attempt to achieve a ‘frictionless’ experience, some are also becoming less indulgent failing to meet the consumer’s need for adornment, desire and personality.
As producers, how can we ensure we continue to provide the opportunity for users to have fulfilling and compelling experiences?
The consumer journey is becoming more complicated than ever before.
The relationship between consumption and the consumer’s portrayal and understanding of themselves has evolved over centuries to become the dominant cultural form we witness in society today. Driven by technology this relationship is, yet again, under change. What effect will this have on the consumer’s satisfaction in making tangible their hopes, dreams, beliefs, ideals and, in turn, their identity through what they buy? How can we, as designers and producers, ensure we continue to provide the opportunity for users to have fulfilling and compelling experiences?
This behaviour has previously been amplified by the producer’s and consumer’s joint participation in cultural shifts, industrial revolutions, technological advances, world wars, stock market crashes and many other disruptions. All of this has left us at a point where we consume a variety of media, services, goods and experiences as a reflection of who we believe ourselves to be. This cultural form has not gone unobserved; from critics to artists we have seen vast amounts of commentary around the subject. Artist Barbara Kruger for example, addressed this with the adaption of a well-known phrase, I shop therefore I am, to state that people are not defined by what they think, but instead by what they own.
We now appear to be in an age where ethically engaged consumers see that we cannot continue on the symbiotic relationship of culture, production and consumption that they previously engaged with. In conventional business history, consumer trends credit themselves to corporate prescience, correctly predicting new market opportunities. In reality, it appears their consumers now have a far greater role in instigating new cultural trends in consumption. Consumers have forced fresh demands upon the producer, demanding sustainability, longevity, creativity and control. This has influenced new approaches to consumption. We have seen the “power in numbers” of Kickstarter, the trust in “peer to peer” and fascinating campaigns from companies such as Patagonia, all demonstrating that ordinary consumers have become better connected and more empowered than ever before. 
Conspicuous consumption is nothing new (Veblen 1899); it is only natural behaviour for people to want to belong to tribes. This sense of belonging is ultimately key to society, as the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman states in his 1959 book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’: ‘when an individual enters the presence of others, they commonly seek to acquire information about him or bring into play information about him they already possess’. Goffman compares an individual’s presentation of self to that of a “stage performance” in that there are different roles to be played by the individual; there are also different elements to this. One that Goffman considers important is “appearance”. He considers the importance of appearance in pre-empting the judgement of others. Consumers are presenting such information to people in an attempt to say “this is who I am”. These actions can become a consumer’s armour to an ever-changing society.
Michel Foucault, a French theorist and philosopher compared modern society to the Panopticon — a facility that allowed “inmates” to be constantly surveyed without, at any time, allowing any individual inmate to know if he or she were being watched.  He believed that observing and evaluating people in this way led to an individualising of power, i.e. the power transferring from the inmate to the observer. Foucault stated that ‘the panopticon was a laboratory; it could be used to carry out experiments, to alter behaviour and to train or correct individuals, suggesting that the panopticon, or the eventual panopticism is a tool with which to manipulate individual identity. Many Consumers buy into fashion, trends and spend time curating their social media platforms for the benefit of others furthering this, many products still exist only to speak of class and tribes because as Foucault said ‘Visibility is a trap’. However, we are witnessing an emerging consumer who seems to have a new audience for what they consume, themselves.
A New Audience
While consumption is often brushed off as obvious, unimaginative, conspicuous and status seeking, in reality today’s consumer has evolved beyond this somewhat pedestrian view. Consumers are deriving much more meaning from goods. Consumption is keeping people’s dreams alive, it makes ideas and ideals tangible and reachable. ‘One adorns one’s self for one’s self’ Georg Simmel wrote, going on to state ‘the personality, so to speak, is more when it is adorned’. It would seem then that the modern consumer is consuming not only to protect themselves from an ever changing society by creating a constant tangible representation of their ideals, but also to sculpt ones opinion of ones self, through interaction with designed goods and therefore the cultural categories they inhabit. The consumer then, adorns one’s self with a lifestyle of commodities in an attempt to build a clear picture of who they are. We still buy into lifestyles that we aspire to, even when we know nobody but ourselves is ever going to bear witness to them. Since the 2008 financial crash we’ve seen less conspicuous consumption as it becomes tackier to flaunt one’s wealth, yet product sales haven’t decreased. We’ve even seen smaller car badges, non-branded shopping bags and logos on the inside of products.Aspirational consumption is shifting from being something aimed at one’s audience to something that one can even take part in. Rob Walker points this out using the example of Method, a San Francisco based Soap Company. He points out the insanity of investing large amounts of money on dishwasher soap simply because you think somebody is watching,
‘It’s not easy to come up with a purely rational defence for buying a cool looking bottle of dish washing liquid that you don’t even think will work. On the other hand, theories of conspicuous consumption don’t really explain such a purchase, either… The only thing less plausible than paying a premium for a high design dish liquid simply because you want to clean dishes is to do so because you think that any more than a tiny handful of people will ever see, notice and be impressed by that bottle.’ 
While some consumers own such vast wealth that paying for a premium dish washing soap is not noticeable, Walker does have a point. He believes the modern consumer is purchasing such commodities because they are finding ‘utility in the form of pleasure’. If pleasure is to be found in adorning oneself with the commodities of today, and this is to amplify one’s personality, then as Simmel states, it allows ‘the mere having of the person to become a visible quality of it’s being’. Ultimately the modern consumer is finding utility, the reason in which to purchase, in the form of being.
Today however, is a time where the data of the information age is creating new forms of consumption. We surround ourselves with short lifespan, omnipresent, connected products and services that turn a typical consumer journey on its head. Products such as Amazon Echo allow consumers to act more spontaneously on their needs and desires turning the consumer journey into a series of intent driven micro-moments.
The information age also brought with it online communities giving rise to collaborative consumption. Staying relevant in this growing age of autonomy and collaboration is consequently an interesting challenge for brands. Will we continue to find utility in the form of being? Brands and producers have, of course, answers to such behavioural shifts. Airbnb’s success in recent years is arguably credited to its community, and the rise of collaborative consumption. How it creates this experience is quite interesting; their site has a very humanising design narrative since their product is all about the “holiday”. It also provides understanding and empathy with guests and hosts throughout the end-to-end experience. The website shows “dream like” imagery, big search bars that autocomplete complicated place names and neighbourhood guides for consumers to spend hours browsing. These design elements lead the consumer to believe that Airbnb understands, maybe even shares, their dreams and experiences. They encourage user participation, urging them to take control of their forums and even their logo — which can be adapted, printed and stuck in your window, informing the world you are an Airbnb user. The sense of community and ownership they encourage is designed to create a sense of “belonging”. If to consume and contribute to these narratives is to “experience” or to “have” part of them — even momentarily- then once again that “having” becomes a representation of the consumer “being”. Being and belonging have become strategies employed by producers to encourage consumption of the products and services that they offer. In an interesting shift, the consumer has moved from an ownership of goods to a sense of ownership of (some) brands.
In the age of collaboration and participatory design, we see some brands working with their consumers in an attempt to remain culturally relevant and deliver meaning. Working on all parts of their consumer journey, from coming to own to ongoing engagement with their users. If we can work with this “bottom up” approach to design for consumer experiences that are compelling enough, while also allowing users to understand why brands do what they do, we can then create brands that deliver meaning to the consumer. ‘You attract people that believe what you believe’ states Simon Sinek in his TED talk, as consumers are searching for meaning from products, services and experiences, they gravitate towards brands they identify with. 
Yet today we see more than ever; one click ordering, express checkout, same day delivery, Amazon Dash and the rise of digital wallets. The instant gratification of these services does not begin to provide the meaning from identity defining purchases and subscriptions that more and more consumers are searching for during the process of “coming to own”. Experiences can not only become easier. ‘Technology has the profound ability to enhance the world around us’ claims designer Yves Behar, in a world where the digital and physical are becoming blurred how can we better design experiences that come to fulfil consumers?
Pact Health may hold an answer, by leveraging consumer guilt, they ensure users stick to pledges they make to maintain a healthier lifestyle. Instead of simply providing the tools to make exercising easier –like many have — they have uncovered and applied a human emotion behind the drive to exercise and turned it into a product. Guilt and other emotional responses to consumption and identity have the potential to profoundly change how a user thinks about how and what they consume. By using guilt to re-introduce wants, lust and desires, we can begin to think about user satisfaction in new ways. As Don Norman says, we have evolved to become emotional beings, emotion can often be our trigger to continuously use a product or service, think about the insecurities of users when they see a friend has read their message but not replied, feeling of loneliness dissipate as users connect on Facebook. It is vital that we begin to think about new ways of merging existing data and knowledge with qualitative emotional insights, which can then create meaningful experiences across different products and services. Let’s aim to crack the emotional bit and then we can work on those dreams and aspirations.
 Walker, R. (2009) Buying in: Who We Are and What We Buy, New York, Random House. P20
 Patagonia, Common Threads page. [online] Available athttp://www.patagonia.com/email/11/112811.html (Last Accessed 22/12/2015)
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