The Desirability of Handbags

Handbags, like technology, can become part of your “everyday carry” – if they fit into your everyday life. Sometimes a handbag doesn’t “fit” your lifestyle, but you buy it anyway. Good handbags should be usable, but some very popular handbags are not at all usable. Why do people buy handbags that are hard to use?

In my last post, I outlined the major dimensions of handbag usability. In this post, I describe another “job” people hire handbags to do for them: social signaling. This post might help you avoid buying the wrong bag, but it will also reveal something quite invisible to most folks: consumer products are not pragmatic, functional things, but complex cultural memes that are infused with social meaning. People buy handbags (or phones, or software) not just to carry their stuff, but also to project a desirable image.

Beyond usability: what “job” do you hire your handbag to do?

Some in the user experience community talk about products and objects you “hire” to do a job for you. The Jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) framework is highly influential beyond the UX field; business strategists use it as well.

Using the JTBD framework, we might ask, what do we “hire” handbags to do for us? First, the obvious: we do hire handbags to carry our stuff for us.  But if that’s all that handbags are, we’d all be carrying plastic shopping bags. Something else is going on here. But what?

Here’s Miley Cyrus with a truly stylish white plastic tote and brown plastic jumbo tote.

Many technologists make the mistake that functionality will automatically translate into product love – it doesn’t.  Plastic bags are pretty usable, but they are not at all desirable. Some of the most desirable handbags are not usable at all (I’m looking at you Hermes Kelly bag).  Even unusable handbags will be highly sought after if they effectively project a desirable image.

We “hire” our handbags to tell other people: “This is the kind of person I am.” No amount of Carry-ability will convince me to buy an all-crocodile handbag, for example, because I don’t like killing crocodiles for leather, and, more germanely, I don’t want other people to think I support killing crocodiles. Jane Birkin herself did not like killing crocodiles, and begged Hermes to stop using crocodile leather on their Birkin bag (They did not stop but managed to come to an agreement with Birkin).

Projecting An Image: Handbag as PR Machine

Handbags tell people what kind of person you want them to see in you. Sociologist Erving Goffman called this “impression management”; a handbag is part of the impression you architect.

We “hire” a handbag just like we hire a PR firm to create an image for us. Who can forget the Sex in the City episode where PR executive Samantha bought a Birkin, pretending it was to enhance the image of her client Lucy Liu? Ironically, this is exactly what Samantha was hiring the Birkin bag to do for herself.

Consider the person who might carry each of these bags.  The Kate Spade Mini Simone Satchel is feminine, even child-like, and playful. The Marni shoulder bag is clean, lean, and minimal. The Gucci Babouska Boston Bag is sumptuous, bursting with ornamentation, and brassy in its presentation. Each bag would perform similarly on the Handbag Usability Themes, but they signify very different concepts. Feminine, clean, or sumptuous: people recruit a handbag to project one of those ideas.

A desirable handbag might be so good at projecting just the right image that you might forgive its lack of Search-ability, for example. A slouchy hobo projects one image, while a crisp satchel projects another, as you can see with Ashely and Mary Kate Olson. One of them (I cannot tell which!) carries a classic black Birkin, while the other carries a slouchy Chanel hobo. These two women are literally identical but the handbags project completely different images.

So it’s about money then? Umm, no.

Handbags are more than just usability – we hire them to tell people who we are. Sometimes, people take this to mean simplistically that handbags are “all about money.” You hire a handbag to tell people how rich you are, right? Wrong.

Sure, the most expensive handbag in the world was the Himalayan crocodile Birkin which recently sold in Hong Kong in 2017 for $377,000 USD. But how much a bag costs is not the only signal people want to send. Notably, this particular bag is, you guessed it, made from crocodile leather (Sorry, Jane Birkin).

You are projecting exclusivity. You can’t just walk into a store and buy an Hermes bag, even if you have the money. You have to “know” when they are available. You can’t just pick the most popular bag – you have to know which bag has cache. It’s more than just the price tag, but also the insider knowledge you possess.

This is sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital – we distinguish ourselves with our “good taste.” Good taste is often expensive, but not always. Too many logos? Too obviously expensive, and worse, readily available? How gauche. Handbags rich in cultural capital are exclusive – hard to find, hard to know about, and hard to buy.

Buying the wrong bag: when desirability trumps usability

If you’re like me, you’ve bought The Wrong Bag. The Wrong Bag looks good, and probably was pretty expensive. It probably has some sort of cache, maybe it’s the “it bag” of the season. You think it will enhance your image. But maybe this bag is simply not usable enough. And maybe you bought into someone else’s concept of desirability, instead of your own.

I do this all the time with certain cuts of clothing; I know what works for my silhouette but I conveniently forget it when something is “on trend.” This happens with handbags all the time, like this Celine. I loved the look of the Celine Tricolor Trapeze bag, but it was the least usable handbag I’ve ever used.  It spilled open at the worst of times, was impossible to open, and was hard to carry. I got a lot of compliments on the bag, but when my rental period was over, I was happy to send it back.

 

Buying the right bag is about making sure it’s usable enough, and projects the image you are curating for yourself.

The Chanel Perfect Edge medium shoulder bag had great grab-ability, and easy carry. I would have preferred the shoulder strap to be a shade shorter, but I did find the handle to more than make up for that. The challenge here was to hold the bag open while carrying it. The handle was great for grabbing, but poor for opening. But just look at this biker sensibility! The chunk of the handle strap gave it an edge (get it?). I actually really liked this bag. It was easy to use and wasn’t too stuffy. Its unusual style compensated for it usability flaws.

 

The Prada Saffiano tote was high in Grab-ability, and with a pochette performed well on Search-ability. The problem was that it was entirely too big for everyday carry. I put *everything* into this bag, including my laptop. But you can see, it’s a bulky bag. I found myself toting around more than I could carry. As much as I’m a fan of Prada and its image, this bag was not for me.

 

The Louis Vuitton Alma was, by far, the most usable and desirable handbag I’ve ever used.

Its classic clamshell shape has a pop of patent leather to give it depth, but it still goes with everything. Note that there is also a shoulder strap, which you can use, in a pinch, though I rarely did. The grab-ability of this bag is second to none, and the full-length zipper made this bag so much more usable – I could unzip to the maximum, and find everything I was looking for. The double handle allowed me to hold the bag securely while I was looking, and the shape allowed me to keep the zipper somewhat open without spilling out its contents. But this bag was also desirable because of its black patent sheen and texture, and its brand identity.

Back to the point: what handbags can tell us about tech

Technologists like to think they are engineers, creating engineered products for humans’ technological augmentation. But we know that tech is just like any other product: it must be usable AND desirable. Handbags hit that sweet spot when they are easy to use AND have an element of exclusivity.

Technologists take note: you are fulfilling both functional and emotional needs. Sure, people want their tools to do heavy lifting for them, but they only love products that fulfill a deep emotional need like “project the right image” or “connect to me to my loved ones” or “make me feel safe.”

Products that can fulfill both types of needs are the ones most likely to become both popular and useful. Handbags can teach technologists a lot about product design, but first and foremost, it teaches us that humans are not “rational” beings, but complex, emotional, and culturally aware. Good products fit simply into a complex landscape, provide emotional rewards, and signal culturally appropriate messages.

Being practical: Heidegger’s lesson for design research

Next Wednesday, I’m giving a guest lecture in Katy Pearce’s social research methods class at the University of Washington. Dr. Pearce has asked me to come and talk to the class about some of the real-world applications of social research. I suggested I talk about ethnography in product design. She agreed.

My goal of the lecture is to show the students – many of whom are already working in professional capacities – that social research can and should play a significant role in the business world. More specifically, I plan to show them how ethnography is an ideal method not just to gather insight, but to “de-centre” themselves and put the customer at the centre of their enterprise.

Just using social research alone will not guarantee this epistemological shift.

Social researchers often approach product design research as an opportunity to flex their methodological muscles, not to understand or empathize with the customer. Perhaps because they wish to differentiate themselves from “mere designers,” social researchers such as sociologists, anthropologists and human computer interaction scientists, tend to employ advanced and complex methods to determine “significance” of a particular product feature. A case in point is the “time to completion” metric often employed by usability researchers. This metric is often stripped of all contextual meaning, and the focus becomes the metric itself. It offers no insight into the user’s actual interpretation of that experience, whether it is meaningful, useful or delightful. Yet, you will see “time to completion” metrics in private-sector usability studies, and countless published papers.

I avoid these kinds of decontextualizing methods in my practice, in part because I find them ineffective, but more importantly because I find them inconsistent with deep empathy with potential product users. What must one really understand to make great products? One must understand context, history, culture. In other words, one must be open to what potential product users themselves are thinking, rather than cramming a method on top of their experience and using it as the interpretive frame.  Choosing to use a more contextual research method is more skillful, empathetic, and selfless. It may not offer fancy calculations or complex interpretations, but it is absolutely more practical.

This is the orientation underneath my upcoming book Practical Ethnography, which is called “practical,” for a very good reason. It refers to Heidegger’s zen-informed, anti-modern conception of our modern world. In a sense, it is a concerted rejection of the “specialists’ world” which seeks methodological flourish over participants’ needs, desires, and mindsets.

 

In my lecture, I’ll talk about Heidegger’s idea of “being practical” versus “being theoretical.” (As an aside, Nassim Taleb takes up these ideas in his current book Anti-Fragile; he has little time and much disdain for “Harvard Business professors” who have never managed a business in their lives. Talk about “being theoretical”!)

Heidegger argues that “being theoretical” is to use ideas that you have purposefully chosen as being part of a specialists’ world.  You bring with you a set of beliefs as a researcher, for example, that brings you to a narrow, focused understanding of a particular phenomenon. You have chosen to measure “time to completion” because this metric has currency within your discipline. It makes sense to other researchers but very little to actual users.  For Heidegger, that narrowing is the problem. You are unable to “open worlds” and see only a tiny sliver of the phenomenon at hand.

Scholar Carole Steiner has an excellent (albeit very challenging) article on how this approach stunts innovation. Social scientists themselves are “being theoretical” in their research, she argues, because their theoretical knowledge limits their investigations. As researchers, we fail to “de-centre” ourselves and “re-centre” the participants. The result, she argues, is a stilted, overly specialized approach which ultimately fails to provide either human insight or innovation.

Instead, we should aspire to techne which refers to the original Greek work that roughly translates as “know-how.” A techne way of knowing the world does not involve disinterested knowledges or theories, but contextually defined understandings of our surroundings. As Heidegger explained, objects have “assignments,” or the historical imprints objects impress upon each other. Objects make sense together. They derive meaning from each other and their placements in relation to each other. Objects also have “involvements” or functions and uses made meaningful through human involvement.  The “assignments” shape and influence the human “involvements.” We make sense of objects through intuiting their assignments. We give objects “involvements” or possible human uses through our interactions with them.

We do not “make” assignments or involvements; they are revealed to us. We are thrown into this world which is already populated with objects and people. We do not make this world. It is revealed to us. Objects’ historical significances are revealed to us through their connections to other objects and their possible functions we infer therefrom. In this sense, Heidegger argues that we should be passive receivers of knowledge like assignments and involvements. This is what he means by “Da-sein” which could be translated as “be there.” We must simply be in the world and thereby understand its meaning.

We cannot “know” attachments and involvements without interacting with objects. We cannot “make” these by forcibly creating an object to have particular functions or uses. All objects have assignments and involvements that have little to do with purposive human activity, and more to do with historical human experience.

In short, no object emerges without assignments or involvements, pure and unencumbered. No object is an island. All objects are inextricably linked to other objects and to us.

We would do well, Steiner argues, if we approach research with this idea held firmly in our minds. We must approach the topic of our research with the logic of techne. This means that we see objects in our social world as necessarily embedded within their contexts. We must pay attention to its holistic and historical position. It is not sufficient for social scientists to occupy the world of the specialist; that would be “being theoretical” because it does not appreciate the world in its historical nature.

As Steiner writes:

[Social researchers]….cannot…be described as being practical just because they use equipment, have professional practices or do practical things: to Heidegger, they can only be practical, when they involve themselves with the complex relatedness of the historical, public world that is open to non-scientists, non researchers (Steiner, 1999, p. 592)

It is this appreciation of the public world that allows us to design and build great products. We must be engaged with assignments and involvements, and we cannot do this if we do not reflect on our participants’ worlds, rather than our own specialist ideas such as time to completion. To focus so narrowly means poorly conceived products. But worse, it can even trigger existential crises.

In fact, once we enter the specialists’ world, we risk total meaninglessness. As Wrathall has argued, this is Heidegger’s interpretation of what Nietzsche meant when he said “God is dead.” This is how God has died; we no longer have a fixed point of reference for meaning but are instead set adrift in a sea of disconnected objects, severed from their meaningful places in the world. Researchers could be complicit in such existential violence if they fail to re-contextualize their research. Product designers too would be mindlessly creating objects that pile up metaphorically and literally because they have no meaningful place in the world. One could argue this is the true root cause of over-consumption.

 

The Heideggerian approach is not new to product design research. Dotov and Chemero have used this approach in a usability-influenced study of computer users. They found that technology that “broke” suddenly became apparent to users. Johnson takes up in his article on user-centred design (UCD). He argues that UCD, ironically, has a deeply impoverished conception of use. He suggests we recover the word techne from its original Greek, which would include not just the technology itself, but also the know-how of putting it to use and the context in which we use it. In other words, to be better user-centred designers, we must know the attachments and involvements of potential objects that we bring into being. We must know their context.

This is the heart of my theoretical justification for ethnography in general and Practical Ethnography in particular. In the rest of the lecture, I’ll provide examples of how impoverished other methods are when attempting to understand attachments and involvements. I’ll also offer case studies from my own practice.