Designing for socio-pleasure

Jussi Ahola
5 min readNov 10, 2013

If we bought clothes only for the physical utility that they provide, there would be very little room for debate when purchasing a new winter coat. Physical attributes of the coat such as warmth, wind and rain resistance, feel on the skin, and weight would be the only factors to consider when making the purchase decision.

A trip to the closest shopping center, however, will show that there is so much more to the everyday objects around us than the utility that they provide. The decision to buy a given coat is influenced by an array of factors that go beyond mere utility.

What does wearing this coat signal to other people? Perhaps I’m trying to signal playfulness, power, youthfulness, or that I don’t give a shit about fashion trends. Does wearing this coat signal that I am a member of some social group? Some brands definitely act as signifiers of belonging to a certain group, such as skaters, preppies, or the fabulously rich. Perhaps the coat is made out of organic fair-trade cotton, which again would signal something about me as person.

The point of these “attributes” of the coat is that they are not inherent in the coat itself, but derive their meaning only when I’m wearing the coat in social interaction with other people. In his book Designing Pleasurable Products, Patrick W. Jordan terms the social value and pleasure that I get from these social signifiers as socio-pleasure.

In most cases technological progress results in products that provide more value and pleasure than their predecessors. In some cases, however, I’ve noticed that some aspects of certain products do not always change for the better. The socio-pleasure is an aspect that seems to have taken especially nasty hits when new products have been introduced.

Case e-book readers

Reading a physical book in public setting signals something about you to other people. Though we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, people will inevitably make some judgements about you based on the covers of the book that you are reading. Whodunit signals something else than self-help and poetry something else than a knitting how-to. The reader can derive socio-pleasure by signalling something about herself to others through the book covers.

This guy is faking to read Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. What a smart guy he must be!

Physical book also act as great conversation starters, either when being read or sitting on a bookshelf.

With every single one of the e-book readers in the market at the moment these sources of socio-pleasure are lost. Though the use of an e-book reader also signals something about a person and perhaps is also a source of socio-pleasure, we cannot make out anything about a person based on what they are reading with their reader:

The same guy reading the same book on an e-reader. (Or maybe he’s reading a knitting how-to. Or Facebooking. I really don’t know.)

This is where designing for these sources of socio-pleasure steps in. With some understanding of the sources of pleasures that people have we can definitely improve many products and provide their users with more pleasurable experiences. I’m guessing that the price of an e-ink display today is low enough to make a following design improvement commercially viable:

Prototype of an e-book reader with a rear-facing e-ink display showing the covers of the book being read. A win for socio-pleasure.

Another benefit of this design is that we could fake to be reading something else than we actually are; I could be reading Relationships for Dummies while the rear-facing display of my e-book reader would say that I’m reading Plato’s Dialogues. Sweet!

What about the lost bookshelf? Some e-book retailers have experimented with digital e-bookshelves that you can view with your reader or another device:

The e-bookshelf in Apple’s iBooks. Ouh the skeuomorphism.

The problem with these e-bookshelves is that they have to be accessed with a device and cannot be viewed by the casual visitor to your home; the conversation-starter aspect of the bookshelf is lost. The price of wall-sized displays that could permanently host an e-book collection on your wall is still today pretty high. Here’s a more viable option for today: e-book sellers could send image files of the spines of the e-books to buyers, who could then print them out and add to their e-bookshelf.

Prototype of an e-bookshelf with printed book spines. Doesn’t collect dust, is lightweight to move, and conversation starters are guaranteed. (I plead guilty to some skeuomorphism, too.)

Case invisible bicycle helmet

A Swedish company called Hövding have made an invisible bicycle helmet. You just wear a collar around your neck which hosts the airbag that inflates in case of an accident. I just love the concept of the product, and if you are yet to decide what to get me for Christmas, you can now consider yourself tipped off.

From the perspective of socio-pleasure, I’m not sure what to think: Sure, wearing one of these helmets would signal a lot to those people who are in the know that I’m actually wearing one. However, the product is pretty much unnoticeable (which, of course, is the whole point) and before they become more common, I assume that practically everyone would just see me as another helmet-less cyclist. A traditional bicycle helmet signals that I am a responsible cyclist who adheres to traffic rules and cares about the contents of his skull, which is a great source of socio-pleasure.

I’m not sure how to improve this aspect of the invisible helmet: on the one hand, the fact that the helmet is so unnoticeable is what makes the product, but on the other hand, making it more noticeable could improve the product in terms of socio-pleasure. However, I’m sure that if the great minds at Hövding came up with something this smart, they can also come up with a solution to improve the socio-pleasure aspect of their product.

It is not too difficult to think of other products and services that have lost some aspect of the socio-pleasure that earlier technologies and designs had: The utility provided by streaming TV services such as Netflix far surpasses that of aired TV, but the socio-pleasure derived from the experience of watching a TV show simultaneously with your friends and thousands of other viewers is lost. In the good old days aficionados of a particular music genre used to gather around their radio receivers for a set played by a particular DJ for a shared experience; this aspect of socio-pleasure is lost with streaming music services. Everything that is DIY or custom-built is potentially a great source of socio-pleasure.

What you can do as a designer is to be aware of the sources of pleasures that good products can have and explicitly design for them. As a consumer, take the aspect of socio-pleasure into account when making a purchase decision. You’ll be happier afterwards.

First published on Jussi Ahola’s Uncommon Sense.




Jussi Ahola

Product designer. Entrepreneur. Human behaviour, design, technology, language, stoicism.