Do you feel that more and more products are not as durable as they used to be? At that time, I had lunch in my office and watched a YouTube video while doing so (yes, I know we don’t socialise that much, well, at least during lunch). Vox’s video titled “Why everything you buy is worse now” explained a lot about why we get not-so-durable things these days.
For me, the most interesting part of the video is the introduction of planned obsolescence. It was an idea that Earnest Elmo Calkins pushed during the Great Depression in 1930. He didn’t call it planned obsolescence but consumer engineering. The name is self-explanatory and still relevant today, as we always want the next big thing.
In the last decade, there has been a noticeable deterioration in the quality of consumer products, ranging from clothing to technology. Clothes are more prone to tearing, phones are prone to breaking (also, the battery dies all the time), and smart gadgets tend to burn out in just a few years. This trend may be attributed to our own consumer behaviour, where we are always looking to purchase new things.
The technology industry poses even more significant issues. While the fashion industry allows for simple repairs such as sewing a button, several tech companies have made it practically impossible for consumers to repair their products. This not only promotes a disposable culture but also causes needless waste and contributes to the overall degradation of product quality.
For example, do you have the latest generation of Apple AirPods? Or maybe you are more of a Samsung person, so you have Galaxy Buds instead. What if you lose or break the left one, not the entire pair? Can you just replace one? Thankfully, yes. However, if you tend to keep any of your belongings neatly, at some point, you might need a new pair anyway.
The battery of our gadgets and their accessories does not last forever. Sure, you might think about replacing it. However, these days, it’s not easy. Let’s say theoretically we know how and have access to the new battery and tools needed. Still, we might even break the device in the process. It’s not the age of Nokia phones or Sony Walkman when people had easy access to the battery.
On the contrary, the same day that I watched a video from Vox, I found a very good paper about the likelihood of better products ending up not being used or used less than expected. Have you ever heard the phrase ‘I love it, but I’ll never use it’?
When a product is perceived as durable and resistant to becoming obsolete, and has the ability to promote a pleasurable and stimulating experience, it will promote active use of the product itself, as long as it doesn’t heavily touch on the psychological value and irreplaceability.
Upon reading the paper, I realised that it explains many aspects of a product that may lead people to keep them without using them. Apparently, it’s not just about the quality of the material. In fact, high product quality doesn’t guarantee use; some people will just pile it up and, in some cases, buy lower-quality products to compensate for the functionality.
The most important thing that people consider is the emotional part of the product that causes attachment. On one hand, this can be positive, as the product promotes positive emotion, possesses favourable design and material qualities, promotes relatedness and bonding with others, and promotes individual self-identity and self-expression. However, while sentimental emotions can increase attachment, the usage stage is often associated with decreasing use of the product.
Therefore, while products nowadays are perceived to be less durable due to businesses prioritising demand, speed, and cost efficiency over quality, designers may deliberately ‘decrease’ quality to increase product retention and balance attachment. After all, you wouldn’t want to own an exclusive hoodie from your favourite boyband and just leave it rotting in your wardrobe, would you?