The Power of Objects in Customer Experience Design


Ever thought about why there is a nicely decorated table in every Pottery Barn? Objects have been traditionally marketed through the marketing mix using the four Ps to make products more appealing to consumers. However, objects can be more than something that is leveraged through product, price, promotion and place. While traditional marketing practice looks at objects in a static materialistic way customer experience designers rather see objects as active entities. Consumer researchers Amber Epp and Linda Price have long shown that things can have agency – they can become actors who have roles in everyday life practices. Through integrating an object in identity practices, it is assigned value and becomes “singularized”. This enactment empowers objects to influence and reshape people, other objects, and activities around them.

Just consider a table that becomes the hub of family interactions. It is the center of all activities ranging from family dinners, social chats with friends to children doing homework or playing games. As the table becomes embedded in these practices, iconic images of family are bundled with it, enacting the object. For this reason, the table is empowered to reshape the family network in which it is active. For instance, spaces around the table like the kitchen receive enhanced status. Other objects such as the chairs or cutlery might receive a personal meaning through the focal object. Also family identity practices can be reshaped or transformed by the singularized object. Instead of rushing to work, a proper and relaxing breakfast might be consumed at the table.

To leverage that same object agency, customer experience designers often integrate family settings into retail environments, thereby making consumers feel at home. Here are five object strategies customer experience designers can use:

Re-Enact the Home

Consider showcookings at Wiliams Sonoma, where samples of Apple cider are handed out to customers. Through pleasurable smells and stimulating the sense of taste, associations with a home-cooked family meal are created. Rather than only focusing on the sale, the focus on the practice and the interaction with a nice and friendly staff increases the feeling of warmth and induces memories of beloved ones. Also activities for children like crafting or painting can project images of family identity practices. Pottery Barn Kids presents products for children in a way that makes parents revisualize their own childhood, thereby encouraging them to provide the same or similar experiences for the next generation.

Object Stories

Telling a story about an object enables consumers to better relate and assign value to it. As objects accumulate histories from the social interactions they are caught up in certain information about its heritage, the production process or for which intent it actually was produced gives the product a social connotation which increases the likelihood that consumers assign value to it.

Foster Integration

New furniture often competes with existing objects which are already integrated in a consumer’s home. Often singularized objects have to be displaced in order to create space for a new object in the setting. Experience designers can use technology in simulating a customer’s home environment digitally to give consumers a feeling of how new furniture can be integrated in their domestic environment. Just like Tesla is doing this with cars and Nike with shoes consumers get generally more attached to products when they can imagine them as a playing a role in their lifestyle.

Arrange and Associate

The arrangement of products in a store is essential for an object’s agency. As network theory shows the singularization of one object through associating identity practices with it can be transferred to other objects and spaces around it. Presenting a table as a working desk with a desk lamp on it can therefore enhance the meaning of both products and make it appealing for a certain target group, namely working professionals in this case.

Pleasant Ambience

Servicescapes comprise tangible and intangible material cues that influence retail experiences and therefore also influence the singularization of objects. While metallic materials makes Zara look like the backstage of a fashion show, the use of wooden elements at Pottery Barn induces associations with a ‘home’ in the countryside. Intangible sensory cues like warm lightning or pleasant smell increases the comfort level of consumers, while slow music encourages people to explore. Through presenting a servicescape as a homey domestic environment the singularization of objects is influenced positively.

Katrin Schober, Nishu Singhania, and Mayank Yaduvanshi are MBA Students in the new Customer Experience Design course at the Schulich School of Business at York University.