Beyond utility — what meaning does your product convey?

The brilliance of Steve Jobs was his ambition to re-imagine human ‘everydayness’ into a product. His driving force was not a problem solving ‘paradigm’. Rather, it was the quest to mediate meaning through products — the same meaning we, as humans, search and aspire to every day. This product design approach sometimes referred to as a holistic approach, targets human wants rather than needs. It starts with the question: ‘which solution would bring out the human experience to the fullest?’ instead of ‘what problem is there to be solved?’

The latter approach, an engineering one, tends to bring the utility part of a product to the fore. The focus is to make sure that the product is exceptionally good at what it does — functionally. The problem is that once the product is out, what it brings to the table usually becomes a default expectation among its users, and loses its touch quickly.

Besides, utility focus technologies are prone to be easily replicated by others. However, the main shortcoming of this design approach is its failure to add societal value to users’ life in the long run. It tends to stay at providing functional level attributes (e.g. faster, easier, ‘modern’, trendy et cetera ).

How can we think beyond a utility mindset? Answering this question requires a more philosophical reflection of everyday life rather than a scientific one.

A quest for meaning

What is the meaning of your life or mine? Or, as Confucius put it 2,400 years ago, “What does it mean to be human?” Socrates and Buddha, Freud, Spinoza and Fromm have also raised the same question in different forms. The idea of Buddha’s ‘Nirvana’, Socrates’s ‘cultivation of the soul’, Freud’s psychoanalysis of ‘deepening the experience of oneself’, and Confucius’s ‘REN’ to develop profound harmony with oneself all revolves around the same thesis.

Human-subjective experiences such as self-actualisation and empowerment, societal values, self-awareness, authentic identity, sense of existence in the world, autonomy and social responsibility, a need for a sustainable relationship with oneself and the larger world play a more significant role in creating a meaningful existence (Lakew, 2016).

If your product is superb at its utility and you have reasonably good marketing strategy but still lags in traction, it may be a sign that you are pushing functionally good but soulless product to the market.

Beyond utility — mediating meaning through your product

Designing meaningful products start with a philosophical account of the human-tool relationship. As noted from the get-go, there are innate characteristics that define our way of ‘being human’. Though different from one to another, these characteristics dictate how we accept whatever comes in our way , whether it is other humans or products.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1962) captured this bonding development as ‘for-the-sake-of-which’ (das Worumwillen) relationship building. The expression identifies the grand outcome of why users engage with a specific tool and what they end up becoming as a result of using it. For-the-sake-of-which is a mechanism by which one continuously redefines self-identity by using a particular product.

In other words, we appropriate products into our lives in a way that enriches our growth and allow us to become who we want. When we use Facebook, we are not just using it for the sake of using a Facebook app, but in a way that fulfils our idea of what it means to be a human: preserving the social relationship, what we think, being seen and remembered. That is, for example, if you think being ‘unique’ is an important aspect of your self-image, then you use Facebook from that perspective; your pictures show how unique you are. Or if you think family is an important aspect of being human, then you show a lot of kids and family pictures. Finding meaning is the fundamental essence of our way of being human.

Here are some heuristics you might want to consider to attach more meaning to your products.

  1. Be cautious where you start your design process

The utility part of design might seem like a ‘clear-cut’ place to start product development. Doing so, though, is a short-sighted approach. Products with unique utility at first might experience a high adoption rate, but the spike tends to flatten out. When your product starts to struggle and you are in a panic state, mediating meaning through your product will be the last thing on your mind. And designing more utility features will seem like the best idea.

It becomes a spiral chase of a wild goose that makes your product either more meaningless or more complicated to revisit for meaning-making.
Instead, start your product design from the ‘social science’ perspective. Think about the value your product brings to your customers. That makes them attached to it for the long haul — retention highly depends on how meaningful a product is to your customer.

2. Identify what ‘identity’ you want to promote with your product

Answer the following two questions:

  • What is the grand outcome a customer wants to achieve by using your product?
  • Other than its utility, what value does your product offer?

At times, users want to use your product as a means to express themselves, to experience their idea of being human to the fullest, or to identify with a specific culture, politics or other social groups. In this case, you are dealing with the first question. For starters, you want to look at the over-reaching human experiences noted above. For example, does your product have a way to let your consumer express themselves as an Eco-friendly person? Usually, such ‘noble causes’ are sources of self-actualisation experience.

Conversely, your product can enable users to identify themselves with something that they hold dear. It is not uncommon to hear people proudly identify themselves as part of the Apple community which might mean perceiving and presenting oneself as modern and trendy. Ubuntu users see themselves as technology freedom fighters. Can your artefact let users become the person they want to be in everyday life?

If, on the other hand, your product is part of a user flow in other products (like, let’s say, a payment service), you are looking at the challenge raised by the second question. In this case, the right place to start is to explore what added value your product can bring to the table. See if your product’s ‘mini-contribution’ in the middle of other products can empower your end-user in any way. Can you provide them with general feedback of their overall interaction flow? Can you help them make better decisions on how to use other products based on their behaviour while using your product?

3. Understand how your user appropriates your product

Users are good at inventing short-cuts and workarounds. In addition to that, they appropriate your product into everyday life with countless other products. Be curious about how your product shows up in your users’ life. The scenarios can be endless.

Explore which products or activities your users tend to be involved with while using your product. See if you can add value to their overall interaction.

4. Make sure your product actually works

If your product doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, users will drop off before they recognise any added values. Make sure that your product is functionally suitable for its primary task. Suitable features represent the utility part of your product — functions, properties, looks and feels (Lakew, 2016). The suitability of a product to its functionality is the first step for adopting your product.

5. Meaning in the form of Empowerment

The concept of empowerment elevates the notion of mediating meaning through digital products to a whole other level. In this capacity, technology can be used to defy limiting societal setting such as gender inequality, consumerism, or commodity consumption-based lifestyle. Positive change such as gender equality, diversity, or behavioural change toward the natural world can also be proactively advocated in the form of empowerment.

Empowerment is a potent way of mediating meaning through a product, and if your product offers that opportunity to users, it becomes an agent of change. See if your product can awaken your users’ social consciousness. Make sure that you measure your product’s success not only on ROI but also on how you empower your users to do good.

What if you didn’t think this through?

Relax! Even if your product has always been about utility, it is never too late to attach meaning to it. You can start with either an inventory into your product features or your users.

Start slow. See if any of your product features can amplify value. If this is not the case, you might want to develop a simple but independent app that extrapolates and delivers meaning based on your product’s utility features.

Mediating meaning in Fintech products

Let’s take a Fintech industry as an example. Fintech companies are in-between payment gateways that facilitate online payments between users and retailers (e.g. Paypal, Zimpler). Fintech products focuses on providing safe and efficient payment methods. However, is there any societal value a Fintech company can bring to the table?

Fintech products appear to customers in the middle of other products during product purchase. Though it appears in the last few steps in users’ check-out experience, it is still possible to deliver added value for customers. For example, by providing a monthly spending budget, they can promote healthy consumption. Most customers want to be financially healthy. Taking users’ payment behaviour into consideration, they can prompt financial well being with personalised suggestions.

If you want to go further to the point of empowerment, you can enable customers to donate ‘left-over bills’ to a good cause. For example, if what they are buying costs €99, you can suggest a €1 donation to a charity organisation. Your choice of methods doesn’t matter as long as it enables you to mediate meaning through your products.

Is it a good business model to design for meaning?

Does it make business sense to design products with meaning-mediating capability? I would argue “yes” for two reasons.

First, as noted above, the long-term use of a product depends on how important your product is to your customers. The utility-focused design emphasises short-term goals such as fast adoption and user conversion. Features developed with this ambition are often ‘engineered’ enough to be patterned and reproduced and in the process becomes prone to be replicated, basic, and elementary. Users’ relationship with such products is based on necessity rather than want.

In the end, a product with no real meaning has a weak glue to attach itself to its users — which makes it easy for them to let go of it.

The second reason is related to the current demographics of digital product customers. Very likely, your target users include Gen X:ers and Millennials who are strongly inclined to use products with socially conscious themes. If your product doesn’t click with users, you might experience a lag in both adoption and retention numbers.

From Oldowan stone-age tools to modern touch screen apps, we humans have never used tools just for the sake of using them. Our search for meaning and identity has always guided us on how we appropriate tools into our everydayness.

Next time you design a product feature, aim to mediate that meaningful everydayness through your product.

You will be rewarded with both happier customers and better ROI.


Heidegger, Martin (1962). Being and Time (translated by Macquarrie, J. and Robinson, E.). Oxford: Blackwell, 288, 387.

Hughes, B. (2015). Genius of the ancient world (Series Genius of the ancient world).

Lakew, Nathan (2016): Being-human in the world of digital artifacts: holistic rethinking of design practices. Mid Sweden University, Faculty of Science, Technology and Media, Department of Information and Communication systems.