Product weight and perceived quality

Let me start with an example. You remember that scene in Jurassic Park where the boy Tim is going through the contents of the car they are in, and he finds some night vision goggles:

Donald Gennaro: [Tim pops up wearing a pair of night vision goggles] Hey, where’d you find that?
Tim: In a box under my seat.
Donald Gennaro: Are they heavy?
Tim: Yeah.
Donald Gennaro: Then they’re expensive, put 'em back.

There is a lot of emphasis, in design, on a products weight. 20 years ago if something was heavy people assumed it was of good quality. Today there is a lot of emphasis on products being light weight. Consumer electronics, for example, seem to be following a trend of becoming thinner and lighter, to the point that the battery is reduced in size, and therefore in capacity. I have a particularly thin smartphone, but would much rather it be heavier/thicker and have a better battery life.

My question is this: What is the psychological association between a products weight and its perceived level of quality, and how is this impacting the design of new products?

I’ve thought about this in the past. This would be a good topic for a conference paper or journal article.

I wonder if it has something to do with how much someone things a piece of solid material weighs. So if you have an iPhone, that is seemingly glass (to the layperson that is) I wonder if the weight of the object needs to be what they would think a solid block of glass the same size would be.

You would need to first learn what they perceive the object to be made from, then find a solid of that material, and ask them if it seemed heavier or lighter than what they thought it would be. I would then compare that to their impressions of the real object, and their perception of quality and value.

This would also be a good reason to get stores like BestBuy to stop displaying those dummy phones. Someone picks them up with no innards, and thinks the phone is going to be cheap.

I don’t think its to do what the perceived material should weight. Maybe more to do with the idea that heavier products have ‘more’ in them. Be that more material making it stronger, or more battery, or more electronics.

You raise a very good point about the dummy phones though. One of the well known selling techniques Apple use in their stores is to get customers to pick up touch and use the real product.

Unfortunately I think people over estimate their own knowledge as this Jimmy Kimmel video below shows. People on the street were given a iphone 4s and told it was the new iphone 5 and immediately said how much better the ‘new iphone5’ was compared to the old 4s (which many of them had their own in their other hand).

Anyway. How does this effect design? Without having done much research I’d be inclined to suggest that it is impacting design negatively. Things being thinner and lighter is great, but only up to the point that it doesn’t affect functionality, i.e. thin smartphones with poor battery life.

As another example, I’m working on a piece of furniture (a bed) that could unintentionally be quite light. But would that detract from its perceived quality or value?

I’ve seen a previous ID/marketing study on this before. I may make some mistakes in the description, as I was introduced to this study about 5 years ago.

Basically they took 10 “average US consumers” and gave them $X dollars. They had to go into a single Home Depot, all the same one, and spend that $X on a power drill. If there was money left over, they could keep it. They could also keep the power drill for life. They were just given the $ and told to shop smart, picking the best possible power drill option.

90+% of them picked the heaviest power drill. This drill had the worst warranty, worst battery life, worst power output, it was an off-name, etc, etc. Basically, it was the worst power drill there. Regardless of all other features/warranty/claims/marketing, they chose the heaviest, because it “felt” the best.

The simple answer to this is…
Heavy things usually don’t break. It is a hardwired concept in our human minds. What is stronger, a sapling or a redwood tree? What is stronger, a giant boulder, or a pebble? It may not always be correct. But if you answer gut-reaction and honestly to these questions, you know the answer is “the bigger one”.
Go back 10 million years. If you were choosing a club used for hunting and defense, do you pick the heavy stick, or the lightweight stick? Remember, you don’t have the intellectual thought you have today to determine that the lighter one will be easier to carry. So, you pick the heavy one.
There is also the fact that products made from the late 1800s up until post WW2 (even later of course) relied heavily manufacturing to be superior to their competition. A big solid metal flashlight was going to be better than a lighter weight flashlight, because they both likely used the same overall materials and overall manufacturing processes. But the heavier one was heavier because it had more metal, therefore making it stronger and less prone to breaking.

Also, if Tim would have just listened to any adult in that movie, even once, I bet so many less people would have died. Frickin Tim…

All good points Taylor, and I agree with you completely that that used to be the case entirely.

However technology has changed, and what I’m getting at is there seems to be a change happening (I’m not against change). Consumer electronics are the best example, as I mentioned with manufacturers striving towards thin/light products. But why is this?

What does the future hold? Are the majority of consumers starting to make informed decisions, doing their research, and buying good products based on informed decisions? Or are they just being led by trends/fashion and making decisions based on this? Worse, are designers/manufacturers doing this and being dictated by fashion rather than striving towards innovation?

I won’t name names, but there are a number or several very successful products that are very expensive compared to similar less successful products.

Started to go off on a tangent there. Anyway, what does this mean for design? If you are entirely correct Taylor, does that mean manufacturers and designers should worry about weight less?

Also, I don’t suppose you know what that study was called do you? or where I could find it?

I believe the entire issue is a matter of consumer messaging - marketing. The design brief detailing the target audience and performance objectives would drive the direction.

Manufacturer A might tout their new widget as being strong as steel because it’s made of blah, blah, blah while manufacturer B might counter with their new widget made lighter and better than brand A because it’s encased in carbon-fiber. They’ll both find an audience if the products have otherwise legitimate purpose and value.

I can’t think of a product category where ‘light-but-strong’ and ‘built-like-yesteryear’ products couldn’t sit side by side and still find an audience for both.

The most important thing here is, that rational/intellectual individuals can determine that the heaviest object is not necessarily the best object. It takes understanding, thinking, and critical thought to see past this hardwired/natural/primitive/instinctual response or thought in our brains. Dare I say “smarter customers”? And that is what is difficult.

Critical thought vs Primitive instinct.

People buy SUVs because “they’re bigger and better, I can run over other cars, its way safer because its bigger”. False. They handle worse. They brake slower. They’re lazier in the design and engineering vs a small compact car. Overall, they’re actually less safe. A marble flying toward a wall at 20 mph isn’t that big of a deal. Plus, that marble can be stopped easily or redirected easily (braking. suspension/steering). A bowling ball flying toward a wall at 20 mph has much more energy. That energy is transferred back into the ball (aka the passengers). Plus, it is much more difficult to steer that bowling ball or stop that bowling ball. But remember “bigger is safer” to families of 5, Just an example.

The point is, we make decisions based off of primitive instincts (for lack of a better, more scientific description).

With how fast we are adapting to change in the modern world, I wonder how long it will take to evolve out of these constraints?
Will it literally be 1 million years for 90% of humans to pick up two objects and state that the lighter one is better?
Or will it take 20 years?
Or will it be object specific (hammer vs smart phone)?
I wish I knew.

It takes great design and experience using said great-designed-product for humans to see/feel/understand that sometimes that initial gut instinct can be wrong. The more this occurs and the more people experience it, the faster we’ll lose this hardwired instinctual specific example (I feel anyway).

All that being said, I’m not a scientist or anthropologist, but I am an Industrial Designer who is interested in both fields to increase my professional skill set. In other words, these are just my opinions.

Last thing… I did a quick search, but could not find the specific study on the power drills. I’ll keep looking, because that study always fascinated me and I’ll like to refer to it in the future.

Perhaps it isn’t just weight you are experiencing. iPhones are pretty dense items. For their volume the user does experience some significant heft. The iPhone 4 for example feels higher quality than an iPhone 3G. I think beyond weight, natural frequency may play a role. A carbon fiber bicycle is very lightweight but you feel the stiffness and can perceive quality in what otherwise may be construed as weak. Tying all the parts together to eliminate flex (where flex is not required) and eliminating rattle or slight shifting helps increase the stiffness (increased natural frequency) and would lend a perception of quality. Taking the iPhone 3G as an example again, if you tap the rear cover, it sounds hollow, and well, plastic whereas the glass back of the 4 is solid and sound. But we all know that if we could add some ribs and perhaps tie more bosses to the rest of the device, that the 3G cover would feel more secure. One step further, imagine how awesome a 3G would feel if that white rear cover was molded glass instead of plastic. The user will certainly feel that and associate that as quality.

It’s funny, but I’ve always described the Apple aesthetic as having a monolithic element. The weight adds to that feeling, but also the fact that nothing seems to move.

I have a Nook Color that I love, but the buttons jiggle back and forth and the frame has delaminated in one corner. It’s small things that do not impact the use at all. However, it’s made me feel like it’s not going to be dependable.

Weight + monolith = quality

Weight + loose/rattles/etc. = POS

Light + mololith = ? Almost doesn’t seem to exist, doesn’t it? Maybe for a reason.

Interesting discussion.

I add that I think there are a few factors-

  1. Perceived weight compared to similar sized objects. An iPhone is a lot heavier that a wallet that might be the same size. Quality. Can also be the reverse light a super lightweight bike or Mac air.
  2. Density. Ie weight vs. volume. that is not weight only but compared to volume and not only actual volume but perceived volume (the total volume the product takes up, not the volume of the material the product is made from. Like an Exo-skeleton frame.
  3. Rigidity. Stiff and light also connotes quality like a fiberglass chair that is very thin and large but light and stiff.


Three anecdotes.

In the 90’s I was designing and engineering snowboard bindings for a couple of brands. We had a team of professional riders for input. Ask them what they wanted, they said, make it light so we can go higher. For season after season we made the lightest bindings in the industry, and saw no growth. The dominant player in the market made heavy thick stable bindings, and continued to rule the market. When the average male consumer goes to the store with 180 dollars to spend, they want the heaviest binding for the buck, feels like value. For mainstream sport this principle has demonstrated itself over and over again.

For high end sport like bike equipment, there is a small sector that pays more for less, this is definitely not the mainstream.

Three weeks ago I left a phone in a taxi and needed to get a new one, I was determined to give Samsung my money to help them out. Galaxy S3, nice display, Android, was all ready to plunk down my money, until I picked it up. Too light. The working phone felt like the mockup display model with no battery. Instant deal killer, it was not psychologically heavy enough.

Last year, sat in on sales of gym equipment, benches, racks, etc., buyers ask the price, and then the weight. It is not a question of the price, it is a question of the price per pound of value. Fortunately in this situation it is easy to add value…

I have passed the point in my design career where I think it is necessary to reduce weight as a goal in itself.

Really good point there.

When someone is spending their hard earned money, they want the most value from it. And weight usually suggests “more”.
“More” quantity.
“More” quality.
“More” value.

$5 for 7 lbs of tomatoes -Or- $5 for 10 lbs of tomatoes?

The winner for the above is obvious.

Now some folks might want to know about the tomato variety, the taste, the farmer, organic or not, etc. But the largest percent of customers will take the 10 lbs over the 7 lbs.

Especially if the actual weight wasn’t listed, and they had to choose by feel alone.

I also like the thoughts on density vs expected density. Makes perfect sense. If you can surprise the customer with a bit more mass (than they initially expected or more mass than a similar product they are familiar with) they may likely perceive that surprise in mass as a quality/value factor.

Re: density, I think any unexpected weight is perceived as quality. Something super light like a cerevello bike is just as surprising as something unexpectedly heavy like an iPhone.


having the benefit of working with a cognitive psychologist on our staff, I can tell you people understand how to answer the OP’s question…
Each person has a mental model of what anything “should” be like, and this model was created by, and can be influenced by all kinds of experiences. To understand someones perceptions is a fairly straightforward excercise, an interview process generates a list of attributes, like weight for example, these attributes are then scored by consumers along a positive-negative continuum. Statistics tells you the answer. This is pro-scriptive as well as descriptive.

i genuinely think that examples like in the above are interesting (i recommend checking out these tangentially related books on the subject of choice & how people choose: The Paradox of Choice & The Art of Choosing), it would seem that there will always be certain thing in which we will think “primitively” about & even the things we think “intellectually” about may have a component of emotion rationalization. many studies have shown that “rational actors” are much more theoretical than real, many of the choices we make can have a subconscious part to them, like the infamous blind taste tests between coke & pepsi or bud & competitor (not that familiar w/beer) : the packaging & the experiences of the user affect the taste

About 15 years ago I was touring a machine shop. We stopped at a CNC mill, they were cranking out boxes and boxes of steel blocks, about 4" x 1" x 1", with two threaded holes in them. “What are those for?” The guy picks up a desktop office phone and flips it over: “it goes in here.”

haha, incredible. The same goes for digital cameras and perfume flacons. Personally saw the lead weights
sorted, lined up and added to the cap of those, one in the fraction of a second. Impressive machinery.

This isn’t for perception. I’ve done the same for electronic desktop enclosures that have heavy cables attached or cables that would have some other tension applied (teenage girl twirling phone cord). You must add weight to the enclosure to ensure it stays put.

I knew about the “superiority” of titanium long before I ever picked up a titanium part. I still remember the disappointment at the seeming lack of substance when I finally did.