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Forgiving a pretty face

February 28, 2012 by Joel Derksen

Illustration by Nancy Ng

In the late spirit of Valentine’s day, I’ve been thinking about the way we fall in love – at least with products. For me, the most notable example is the iPod. Our star-crossed affair has elevated a humble gadget into an iconographic cultural phenomenon.

I remember reading Wired editorials musing about about the ever-constant companion; the people who actually cried when they were forced to hand their iPods over to be repaired or replaced after a long, hard life. Then there was talk around the mystique of the Shuffle; how it seemed to have a preternatural ability to read your mind or mood.

But why did this small, innocuous metal square become a fixture in our lives? More than a fixture — a trusted friend on the road. There are a lot of tangible reasons: the right time, the right place, the right technology and the level of exacting design we’ve come to expect from Apple. But I suspect one of the most interesting reasons is less technical than the former examples. I’d like to believe that we fell in love with iPod for more psychological reasons.

The scroll wheel was an innovative way of managing songs. It took us away from the hammering and pressing (think stiff, clumsy TV remotes, or MP3 players) interactions of yore. Instead, you spent your time petting the device — like a cat stretched out over your Sunday newspaper.

Further to this, I read an interesting idea in Donald Norman’s book The Design of Every Day Things. In this book Norman details an idea called the “aesthetic-usability” effect, which prompts us to forgive, or ignore, the mistakes and shortcomings of beautiful things. Given the significance of touch to people, I wonder if the gestures and tactile dimensions of the interface create an aura of emotional connection to inanimate things – the same way we forgive a pretty face.

And then there’s a third, more character-driven thought. One of the first things that the iPod did when you plugged it in for the first time was ask you to name it. It took on a personality, plaintively asking for an identity (“Who am I? What’s my name?”) before singing a single note.

In these small gestures, maybe we see a bit of a spirit, a unique personality, behind the polished titanium and in the glowing screens of our musical companions.

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