Bud vase features 27 Apr 2005
43 comments Latest by p thain
When Volkswagen released the new Beetle in 1998, I went to the local VW dealership with someone thinking about buying one. The salesman made a big deal about a feature I'd heard a lot about already: the bud vase mounted in the middle of the dashboard. That, I thought at the time, has got to be the stupidest feature I've ever seen in a product. Who has time to keep fresh-cut flowers in their car? Do you really want your car smelling like dead daisies?
Boy, was I wrong.
I should have known I was wrong on one level even at the time -- since, as I say, I'd heard about the vase before getting to the dealership. It was an idiosyncratic, whimsical idea for a car feature, and reviewers and reporters swarmed to it in their write-ups. It said something about the character of the car and its buyers, and it became something to talk about when you talked about the car itself. Salesmen would put flowers in the vase when you picked up your new car, giving you a warm feeling about Volkswagen and the experience of buying the Beetle. The bud vase was great for buzz -- and still is today.
After leaving the dealership, I kept peering in the windows of Beetles I'd see on the road, hoping for validation of my dim view of the bud vase. Instead, about three-quarters of the Beetles I saw had something in the vase, and I've never once seen a dead or smelly-looking flower among them. People use them -- I'd bet a solid majority of Beetle owners use them for their intended purpose or otherwise. The bud vase personalizes the car, and gives the owner a simple and fun means of expression (and the Mini Cooper, the more recent small-car phenom, has its own version of this in its painted roof options).
You could be cynical and say that this is manufactured creativity -- nothing on the scale of the tricked-out original Beetles of the 1960s and 70s. And you'd almost certainly be right to say no modern-day Picasso will create a bud vase sold for millions after his death. The bud vase is not art; it's personality. It invites you to play, and people accept that invitation. Most importantly, it makes the owner of the car feel happier when driving it.
I've tried to learn from how wrong I was about the bud vase. I look for "bud vase features" when I'm thinking about designing products. What's a bud vase feature? Here's my definition:
A "bud vase feature" is functionality outside the core purpose of a product that evokes positive emotion about the product, and allows the user to express their personality or character in their use of the product.
A bud vase doesn't make the Beetle drive any faster, and it may even marginally reduce the safety of the car. But it makes the driver happy every time they get into their car. Of course you want your product to compete with other products in all the standard ways -- price, performance, quality. But to draw your users into falling in love with your product, look for a bud vase.
Computers and computer programs are filled with bud vase features. There is no functional purpose in being able to set a desktop picture in your operating system, but if you see the face of your children or partner every time you boot your computer, that's going to make you happier about logging in than looking at a Windows logo would. WinAmp famously allowed users to skin the media player, and thousands of skins make the player one of the most-personalized products ever. Apple won't seem to let a product out the door without several such features, from the pulsing PowerBook sleep light to the "Genie" window minimization effect to the colors of the iPod and the older iMacs, and many others.
There's an absolutely fantastic blog that talks all about bud vase-type features and other means of evoking emotional responses in your users: Creating Passionate Users by Kathy Sierra and friends. The core thesis of the blog is that your users will fall in love with your product if you can give them the feeling of "I rule" when they use it. Make the product make them feel great, and they will love the product. Basecamp does a fantastic job of this for contractors managing projects with it. By letting the contractor use their own logo and color scheme, and removing any reference to 37signals, Basecamp makes the contractor look professional and well-organized to their clients. 37signals doesn't try to take credit -- they give that to the contractor, and the contractor, inevitably, loves that.
Look for products that people passionately love and are wildly enthusiastic about, and you'll find bud vase features. Find products that people use and hate, and you'll find products that reduce their personality and expressiveness, and leave them with a cold and uniform feeling. Volkswagen had it right in 1998, and their lead is worth following.