Scitovsky, dynamic design, and the Frankfurt shower head

Parker_jotter In The Joyless Economy, Scitovsky observed a problem in the consumer society: that the pleasure of ownership turns to mere comfort. 

Here’s an example.  We give up our Ford Focus and buy an Audi.  We are immediately impressed by how much more fun it is to drive the Audi.  It is better engineered, better built.  But it is not very long before we forget the Focus.  And eventually we come to take the Audi for granted.  Our pleasure has turned to comfort.

I am a little suspicious of the argument as a general proposition.  I own things that continue to give pleasure long after purchase.  I love my ThinkPad.  I love my new pen, a Parker Jotter (pictured). Inexpensive, a little inelegant, old fashioned, it is the perfect implement for the hard working ethnographer (and a lot likes its owner).  I’ve had my Jotter for several months now and if anything I grow more fond of it. 

(Scitovsky assumes that the meanings of the object are only those created by marketing and that these wear away with ownership.  But we know perfectly well that our possessions take on new, more personal, meanings, and that good marketing "scores" them precisely so that they may do so.  When this is the case, the first pleasure ownership is augmented by second and subsequent pleasures.)

But Scitovsky is on to something.  I now live in a free standing house much roomier and better appointed than the little condo I had in Montreal.  I have ceased to note the difference and no longer treasure more room, a back yard, the ability to walk to the Long Island sound. This pleasure has turned to comfort.  My present cell phone is much better than my first cell phone but I do not give it credit for the difference.  Pleasure is merely comfort. 

And this brings me, of course, to the shower head of my room at the Hilton.  For reasons of its own, it delivers an inconsistent temperature.  Sometimes, the water is much hotter than I want. Sometimes, less.  Generally, it circulates gently up and down this narrow range, but occasionally it spikes high, and I have to be quick about getting out of the way.  (This turns out to be good training for the rest of the day.)

Now, I am pretty sure this is an accidental product feature.  The water system of the hotel must deliver water at many temperatures to many rooms, so variation is inevitable.  But this does have the effect of gently changing the temperature, and giving me the pleasure of reentry.  As I return from too warm or too cold to "just right," I have the opportunity to appreciate "just right" all over again.

And I wonder of this is not a way of solving the Scitovsky problem. Could we build variation into product formula in order to remind the consumer of what they liked about the product in the first place? 

Clearly, it doesn’t make any sense to hobble our Audi for some purposes that we might be reminded of its "go fast" ability in others.  And indeed we don’t have to.  Traffic congestion takes care of this. Variation is naturally occurring.

Similarly, I don’t want my Parker pen to skip periodically that I may reminded of its ability to write smoothly.  But it might be possible to build in a shifting center of balance so that the pen feels differently in the hand from time to time.  This would help remind me of how well it is designed.  (Naturally, it should also be possible for me to lock in or release this ability as I want.)

I know that some companies are thinking about how they can allow the consumer to change the formula by, say, twisting the bottom of a can.  But what I like about the Frankfurt shower head is precisely that my intervention is not required, that variation happens on its own.

I can see designers perhaps rising to this opportunity.  After all, we do sometimes come to take for granted their best work.  Work in a little variation, and we are returned to our first reaction of awe struck wonder.  What designerly ego could resist this opportunity?

We could see a time when a variation cycle is a standard feature of design, and something we go looking for.  (Of course, some will want something that remains precisely what it is and not another thing.)  But on balance, I think variation might be the coming thing, and it represents a new challenge for the designer, yet another consideration that must be factored in.  (Note to self: ask Holly Kretschmar at Ideo if there’s anything like this in the works.)

Ours is a culture that embraces variation, variety, change and even discontinuity.  Sometimes this mean we prefer things to remain precisely what they are.  But there will be moments when this immutability will make brands and products seem tedious and a little repetitive, as if they insist on making the same joke over and over again.  Static products may eventually appear stingy and withholding.  These will be products to avoid, for they do nothing in the face of the Scitovsky effect, blithely allowing pleasure to disappear into comfort. 


Scitovsky, Tibor.   1992.  The Joyless Economy.  Revised edition.  New York: Oxford University Press. 

9 thoughts on “Scitovsky, dynamic design, and the Frankfurt shower head

  1. Mae

    American product designers are always working out ways to avoid the discomforting/variable effects you mentioned and appreciate. Example: the type of showerhead you describe is against the building code here in Ann Arbor. Code requires a pressure-balancing device that prevents hot spikes by maintaining constant pressure between the hot and cold incoming streams of water. If the hot water runs out, your shower slowly goes to all cold, but no scalds allowed. Big Brother is keeping you comfortable and not stimulated here. There’s a lot of that in car design too. What’s the meaning?

  2. GrahamHill


    Hope you are enjoying yourself in my adopted country. Showers nothwithstanding!

    Whilst it is an interesting idea, I am not sure that building such variability into products is such a good idea for a variety of reasons.

    Firstly, service quality research highlights reliability as the most important factor from the customer perspective. Customers would rather have adequate but reliable service than sometimes better but unreliable service. Introducing variation would only serve to dissatisfy the customer.

    Secondly, neuroscience highlights how the human brain has evolved for pattern recognition. Frequent and regular patterns are coded into cognitive pathways that allow the brain to process them with minimum effort. Introducing variation would introduce unnecessary cognitive work.

    Finally, even though I don’t for one minute accept Scitovsky’s suggestion that the meanings of objects are only created by marketing, how on Earth are you going to market variability in something that is always supposed to work in a consistent way. You don’t want your Audi to breakdown on the Autobahn just in the name of a variable experience. You don’t want your Parker pen to break down in mid-scribe. And I am pretty sure you don’t want your Starbucks coffee to taste different each time you order one either.

    Quite a challenge.

    Gruß aus Köln, Graham Hill
    Independent Marketing Consultant
    Interim Marketing Manager

  3. Peter

    I wonder if it’s a case of horses for courses, ie, market segmentation. For variety-seekers such as myself and perhaps yourself, Grant, such random changes would be welcome; but for everyone in the other segments, probably not.

    I’ve been searching for years for a breakfast cereal brand whose boxes contains a variety of different cereals, which I cannot see before opening. Of course, I can buy those sets of mixed mini-boxes, but unless I take the trouble to wrap them beforehand in brown paper, there’s no excitement from opening one at random each morning.

  4. Caravaggio

    I think there may be another effect at play before we even buy the item: we quite often have a strong desire to own something, an urge possibly stimulated by advertising and the peer pressure, but when we do buy it, it often ends up being a bit of let-down. That is, it doesn’t deliver the perceived happiness. This is different to the effect mentioned above, which is about how the satisfaction fades as we become accustomed to the item (I think the proper term for the ‘Scitovsky effect’ is ‘hedonic adaptation’). Instead of introducing variability into products, consumers may be better served by upgrading their goods only incrementally (eg: don’t go from a 1 bed flat to a mansion, or having no car to a ferrari, but move up the chain very gradually). This would allow for continuous happiness even if adaptation took place, but it could be pretty costly.

    I still like the idea of variability though. In relationships, we often here the wife say she is not appreciated anymore. Another form of hedonic adaptation perhaps? One trick may be to spend a few days not doing the things your partner has got accustomed to.

    ps – we don’t seem to suffer from this type of adaptation when it comes to food.

  5. cameron

    A group of Dutch designers and design theorists existed for a while who explored ideas such as you are suggesting as a way of extending product use-lives in the name of sustainability (reduced materials intensity): Their work has been well theorised by a philosopher of technology, Peter-Paul Verbeek who mobilises Latour’s concepts of scripts – things [non-human actants] cuing actions in humans [human actants] – and Albert Borgmann’s Heideggerian philosophies of ‘engaging things’ – products that foreground themselves by demanding skill on behalf of the user – as opposed to ‘disburdening devices’ – products that deliver outcomes by backgrounding themselves from the user’s awareness. There is also much ‘design art’, ‘critical design’ or ‘post-optimal design’ that is playing with the sorts of ideas that you have mentioned.

  6. james

    When I was at school I remember that there was a slight variation in the quality of walkers crisps. About 1 pack in 10 per absolutely perfect; the rest were good enough, just not perfect.

    Having realised this, I bought them in hope [but not expectation] and was satisfied just often enough to keep buying them. I think I play golf for a similar reason – although in this case it is one or two great shots per round.

    Is this to do with our tendancy to priviledge coincidence and imbue them with more significance than we “should”? The occasional moments of perfection/coincidence/rightness-in-the-world get up-weighted and wash out the rest.

  7. Tom Asacker

    It sounds like the happiness set point described by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness.

    And your recommendation reminds me of Alan Watts writing: “. . . everything is a question of appearing and disappearing. For example, if I sit next to the object of my desire and I put my hand on the person’s knee and leave it there, after a while they will cease to notice it. But if I gently pat them on the knee because now I’m there and now I’m not, it will be more noticeable. So, all reality is a matter of coming and going.”

  8. steve

    There’s also an element of random reinforcement, in the Skinnerian sense–reward an action only some of the time and you often get stronger response than with consistent reinforcement. Hence, blowing hot and cold.

    One way to get the pleasure of newness over a longer period of time is to own more than one brand or type of something, where you like each version in a different way. I have a lot of medium-priced pens, for instance, and I switch among them a lot. That gives the visual and tactile qualities of each a chance to be noticed afresh. You can also do the same thing with clothes and wristwatches.

  9. shower heads

    I found one website with different series shower head .
    for example
    200 Series
    Showerhead ‘Art Deco’
    As distinctive in appearance as its name implies the Art Deco showerhead range epitomises the superior design and manufacturing qualities upon which Purdie Elcock has built its reputation.

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