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Want to understand experience design? Eat popcorn with chopsticks

Or drink water from a martini glass.

Want to understand experience design? Eat popcorn with chopsticks
[Source Photos: Antonio Guillem/iStock (hand), Paket/iStock (popcorn)]

Popcorn tastes better with chopsticks. That’s according to a new research paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. This doesn’t mean that chopsticks enhance the flavor through some kind of chemical magic, though. The explanation lies in the way people perceive new things–and it serves as even more evidence that experience design matters, a lot.

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The researchers invited 68 people to participate in a study that was supposedly about helping them eat more slowly. Half ate 10 popcorn kernels one at a time using their hands. The other half did the same but using chopsticks instead. Rating the experience, the latter group enjoyed the popcorn much more than the former–giving a much better flavor rating on the same popcorn. When researchers asked the same groups to repeat the experiments, the ratings from each group normalized. Robert Smith, coauthor of the study and assistant professor of marketing at Ohio State University, writes that “when you eat popcorn with chopsticks, you pay more attention and you are more immersed in the experience. It’s like eating popcorn for the first time.”

[Source Photos: Antonio Guillem/iStock (hand), Paket/iStock (popcorn)]

Smith believes that this data “suggests chopsticks boost enjoyment because they provide an unusual first-time experience, not because they are a better way to eat popcorn.” It made people more focused and engaged, even though they were eating a familiar food, which led them to perceive the experience as a better one. The researchers got the same results in other scenarios, with participants claiming that water tasted better when they drank it from martini glasses for the first time. In another experiment, they asked groups of subjects to watch a video filmed from the perspective of a motorcyclist. One group was asked to watch the video while using “finger goggles.” “After the study, the researchers offered to let all participants download the video to keep–and three times more people who watched with hand-goggles asked to download the video than those in the other conditions,” Ohio State University’s Jeff Grabmeier explains in a release.

The implications for design are fascinating. Clearly, the way we experience a product greatly influences the way we perceive its value. If something as simple as finger goggles can change your estimation of a video, imagine how a more thoughtfully conceived experience–whether it’s packaging, sound engineering, industrial design, or even branding–can enhance how you perceive a product. It’s an approach to design that many have argued for over the years–just check out Leviathan’s Jason White explaining the agency’s shift away from traditional media and toward experience design in this talk at FORM in 2015. Experience design firms like Local Projects are booming, while more conventional agencies are adapting and expanding into retail and exhibition design.

Designers can learn a lot from research like Ohio State’s. Whether it’s changing the way a product is unpacked or the way a material feels or even how an interface sounds, even the most familiar product or service can feel novel–even exciting–when a thoughtful design tweak has reframed it as new for the user. In other words, include a pair of chopsticks with everything you design.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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