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.

The Usability of Handbags

What do handbags have to do with technology?

Technology seems exotic, but it’s actually just another new object in our everyday lives. How handbags become part of our “everyday carry” is similar to how technology becomes part of our daily lives. In this series, I’ll examine first the “rational” part of handbags: how well they perform the job of “carrying my stuff.” In later posts, I’ll look at the “irrational” (some might say more human) aspects of choosing things that are really just a pain in the butt to use.

I have always loved luggage and leather goods of all sorts. My favorite gift of my entire childhood was a rattan-and-wood briefcase my aunt gave me when I was 10. I carried that thing to school every day for a year, after which it disintegrated. By the time I was in my 20s, I began an endless search for the “perfect bag.” This was challenging, mostly because I’m cheap but with expensive taste.

My pursuit got a lot easier when my husband began work at Bag, Borrow, or Steal, the handbag rental company (full disclosure: he no longer works there, but many of the links in this post are to BBOS). I was finally able to use as many handbags as I liked, of all sizes, shapes, and even prices. This post is based primarily on that unusual experience of having access to, and regular usage of, a wide variety of handbags. (edit: my second post is about the desirability of handbags).

The Usability of Handbags

Handbags are not just pretty but also workhorses of your “everyday carry.” They can be very expensive, so when you invest in a quality handbag, you want them to “just work.” I have high standards for valuable but good quality accessories, and how they work is one element I consider deeply.

I work as a user experience researcher, which means I help design and evaluate software and hardware products. Usability is a core tenet of quality technology products, and while I’m not a usability lab specialist, I have done my fair share of usability tests for desktop and mobile software, as well as hardware devices and voice-enabled agents like Alexa and Cortana.

I take this experience and apply to handbags, and boy, do you get a different kind of “handbag review.” Handbag reviews online are generally how pretty this thing is, how it looks upon first unboxing, or how rare or expensive the bag is. Rarely – if ever – do reviewers use the bag over a period of time, and evaluate its ease of use. I’ve broken down the key dimensions for what makes a “usable” handbag: Open-ability, Grab-ability, Search-ability, and Carry-ability. I debated including “security” but found its lack only applied to a few bags (I might revisit that).

Qualifying usability

In tech industry circles, usability can be measured in a lot of ways. I myself have used the System Usability Score (SUS) to systematically measure things like system complexity, intelligibility, and ease of use. But that doesn’t work for handbags because “complexity” is not really a problem for handbags. Worse, the SUS is a quantitative measure, which really just saps the beauty, experience, and all the bloody fun out of handbags.

So instead, I describe my Handbag Usability Themes (HUT) which you can use to qualitatively analyze any handbag you’re thinking of buying (or renting!). I can (and very well might) translate this into a Handbag Usability Scale (HUS) at some later date.

Open-ability

How easy is the bag to open? Some bags have complex screws or zippers, while others have no closure at all.  Hobos and totes are two examples of extremely easy to open; many simply have an open top, like this Mansur Gavriel tote. It is as simple as they come – just pull apart the handles.

But the open-ability of this Celine Trapeze bag is terrible. First, it has a clip that you have to turn, carefully¸ in order to open the bag. Then, in order to get the bag full open, you have to flip the cover off. This means that if you’re holding the handle, you will probably drop the bag. In this video of the Trapeze bag, you’ll see that it has to sit on a table to be fully opened. Avoid this like the plague!

 

Even the classics have Open-ability challenges. Opening this Hermes Kelly bag on the go is all but impossible. And what a shame. Just look at that beautiful bag!

I guess we should all “settle” for a Hermes Birkin instead, because of its dual handle design. Notice how the Birkin hangs on one handle when it’s open (incidentally, this a mouth-watering unboxing video of a new Birkin in the signature Hermes orange) .

 

Grab-ability

How easily can you pick up the bag? Grab-ability is the ease with which you can pick up the bag with one hand. Hard-to-grab bags have a combination of large size and long handles. An example of a hard to grab bag is my Jack Georges Alexis briefcase. Its long handles and large size make it quite challenging to pick up quickly. Note that I can easily grab my BCBG clutch with one hand.

This clutch from Alexander McQueen looks like it’s great for grabbing, but it actually has better Carry-ability. The signature bejeweled brass-knuckle handle is gorgeous, but gets in the way of a quick pick up (don’t get me wrong: this particular bag has been on my radar for a very, very long time; I love the look of this bag).

Carry-ability

Carry-ability refers to the comfort and ease with which you can carry the bag, particularly when it’s full. Carry-ability isn’t something you can fully evaluate until you use the bag for an extended period of time. But you should consider the length of the handles (short and long) and the weight of the bag.

Hobos and some totes are generally great for carrying because they are easy to slip over the shoulder. But be careful! Large bags can be filled with everything (like the notorious Louis Vuitton Never Full). Sometimes, you need to carry on your wrist, and here’s where hobos fall a bit short, like with this Balenciaga Sloane Hobo, which will probably break your wrist if you try this when it’s fully filled with your stuff.

Modern minimalist handbag maker Chiyome has two bags that are both high on Carry-ability: a tote and a shoulder bag. The one on the left can be slipped over the shoulder but also has good Grab-ability because of the short handle drop of the shoulder strap. The one of the right has good Carry-ability, but the straps are too long for grabbing. Both have hand holes (is that a word? It’s a strange design), but in practice they are not as “grabby” as handles).

German leathergoods company PB0110 has a shoulder bag that has both good Grab-ability and Carry-ability. The two handles help you grab the bag quickly and carry it for an extended period.

The weight of the bag is another aspect to Carry-ability. Notorious for this is the beautiful, amazing, God-I-have-always-loved-this bag, the small Sac du Jour by Saint Laurent. This bag has such gorgeous architecture (which helps with Search-ability, see below), and its classic design will never go out of style.

BUT, and this is a big but, the bag is heavy AF (2.6 lbs, totally empty). That weight, plus the lack of the a useful shoulder strap all but guarantees that you will find this bag low on Carry-ability.

Search-ability

This is probably the most annoying part of an unusable bag: never being able to find anything. Generally speaking, the larger the bag, the worse the search-ability.

Hobos are terrible for Search-ability because of their slouchy style and lack of architecture. The Mansur Graviel tote was so easy to carry, but it was basically a big empty sac, which made finding anything impossible.

Some handbag designers attempt to solve this by including built-in card slots, pen holders, and the like. Purses with built-in wallets are over-kill, however, because every time you change your bag, you must manually remove your cards and other items. A Search-able handbag allows for some organization, but not too much.

Pochettes are a good solution for a large-empty bag, like the one that came with my Celine Lefebure Alice bag.

 

In part two of the this series, I’ll review some of the bags I’ve had, and how usable they were, including Celine, Chanel, Prada, and Louis Vuitton. I’ll also talk about why none of this usability seems to matter (emphasis on the “seems”) when people talk about the It Bag of the Season or the Bag That Got Away.

The future of work: A designer’s reading list

Recently, I was asked to put together a list of reading for design students. These students are about to design something for emerging productivity needs. I looked through my academic database, I realized that much of what I’ve read is probably not appropriate for designers.

I mean, show me a designer who wants to read Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, and I’ll show you a budding sociologist!

So I changed tack. Below is the rough, popular reading list I came up with. These articles are no substitute for a robust reading of the research on work and technology, but it does reflect some of the major debates in the field.

It also is ripe for design solutions. There is tension. There are problems to solve. What problems would you solve, if you were designing for the future of work?

Understanding work in the 20th century: from hierarchy to what?

Stewart, Matthew. 2006. “The Management Myth: Most of management theory is inane, writes our correspondent, the founder of a consulting firm. If you want to success in business, don’t get an MBA. Study philosophy instead.” The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/06/the-management-myth/304883/

Work and technology: overworked and underproductive

Bogost, Ian. 2013. “Hyperemployment, or the exhausting work of the technology user.” The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/hyperemployment-or-the-exhausting-work-of-the-technology-user/281149/

Madden, Mary, and Sydney Jones. 2008. “Networked Workers”. Pew Internet and American Life: Washington DC. http://www.pewinternet.org/2008/09/24/networked-workers/

Work and Home: blurring the boundaries

Meece, Mickey. “Who’s the boss? You or your gadget?” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/06/business/06limits.html?pagewanted=all

Duxbury, Linda, and Rob Smart. 2011. “The ‘Myth of Separate Worlds’: An Exploration of How Mobile Technology Has Redefined Work-Life Balance.” In Creating Balance? International Perspectives on the Work-Life Integration of Professionals, edited by Stephan Kaiser, Max Josef Ringlstetter, Doris Ruth Eikhof, and Miguel Pina e Cunha, 269–284. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

The Aging Workforce: time bomb or blessing?

Thompson, Derek. 2012. “Gray Nation: The very real economic dangers of an aging America.” The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/03/gray-nation-the-very-real-economic-dangers-of-an-aging-america/254937/

The End of The Job: what happens when no one has a job?

Wishnia, Steve. 2012. “Temp Worker Nation: If you do get hired, it might not be for long.” Alternet. http://www.alternet.org/labor/temp-worker-nation-if-you-do-get-hired-it-might-not-be-long

The Economist. 2014. “The Onrushing Wave.” http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21594264-previous-technological-innovation-has-always-delivered-more-long-run-employment-not-less

MBO Partners. 2011. “The State of Independence in America”. Herndon, Virginia. http://www.mbopartners.com/state-of-independence/independent-workforce-index.html