How to move beyond convenience to helping people with self-development, relationships with others, and designing tangible, non-screen, everyday objects.

With the availability and affordability of new sensors, creating new smart products has never been easier. It’s time to ask ourselves if we really need these products and how they affect us, in terms of leading a meaningful life of fulfilment. As part of a PhD in the subject, Vanessa Julia Carpenter from IdemoLab presents several areas of consideration for companies developing smart products:

3 framings of meaningfulness

We can think of meaningfulness in 3 framings: As people-to-people connections, a person-to-their-sense-of-self and a person-to-time. 

For people-to-people connections, we aim to:
  1. Develop relationships between people,
  2. Deepen those relationships and
  3. Create shared identity. 
For a person-to-their-sense-of-self, we aim to facilitate:
  1. Self exploration, 
  2. Self development
  3. Self expression. 
Finally, for a person-to-time we consider three aspects:
  1. Short versus long term, 
  2. Sense of time, 
  3. Representation of time. 
You can learn more about each of these aspects by visiting the website Meaningful Devices.

The mechanics of meaningfulness

There are 6 value-based characteristics of Designing for Meaningfulness including:

  1. Personal development: Identity, purpose, who am I, who have I been, who will I be?
  2. Moments of significance: Discovery, transformation, the ah-ha moment, leading to identity change.
  3. Value over function: The result of using a device, as it adds value to your life.
  4. Meaning in everyday life: Meaningfulness is different to every person in every situation - the ever-changing definition of what is meaningful on a daily basis.
  5. Critical thinking: Asking the hard questions, analysing and reflecting, leading to growth.
  6. Offline: Could the product have the same effect without measuring anything, or even being connected?
  7. Considering the mechanics of meaningfulness can help companies determine their product’s purpose and significance to the end user and whether their product contributes to a sense of fulfilment in life.

The manifestations of meaningfulness

The manifestations of meaningfulness are the physical characteristics that a product designer might consider when creating a new smart product. These include: 

  1. Non-Screen: Does the product or service we are designing really need a screen to convey information? What other possibilities exist? Light, sound, movement, temperature change, etc? How does this interaction affect the user?
  2. Tangible: How does the product or service exist in the real-world? Is it a tangible object that one can hold in their hands, or is it something digital or virtual? How does the presence or absence of a physical object affect the experience of using this product or service? 
  3. Craft: Have you considered utilizing a traditional crafts person in the design of your product? What does it mean to have a generic, mass product product compared to one which is hand-crafted or made using traditional materials or practices? How could your product’s experience be improved with craft? 
  4. Everyday: How does your product relate to the everyday? Is it a foreign object which may be difficult to align with one’s experience of the world and everyday practices or is it a familiar object, easy to adapt to using? 


A handbook created with Welfare Tech as part of research done with 9 companies to explore meaningfulness in the area of welfare technologies. This handbook includes guidelines and questions to help companies ask if what they are creating is, or needs to be designed with meaningfulness in mind.

Links to academic work

The PhD “Designing for Meaningfulness in Smart Products” was published in 2019. During this PhD period, several publications relating back to designing for meaningfulness have been published and include:

Carpenter, V. J. and Mekler, E.D. 2019. “Towards Metrics of Meaningfulness for Tech Practitioners”. In Extended Abstracts of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI EA '19). ACM, New York, NY, USA, Paper CS03, 8 pages.

Carpenter, V. J., Sokoler, T., Møbius, N., and Overholt, D. 2019. Trækvejret: A Kinetic Device Encouraging Bodily Reflection. In Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction (TEI '19). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 399-406.

Carpenter, V., and Overholt, D. (2018) “Designing for interpersonal connections in future technologies: An annotated portfolio of jewellery devices”. Proceedings of the 2018 NordDesign conference. Design Society.

Carpenter, V. J., and Overholt, D. “Designing For Meaningfulness: A Case Study Of A Pregnancy Wearable For Men.” Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference Companion Publication on Designing Interactive Systems. ACM, 2017.

Carpenter, V. J., Møbius, N., Willis, A., and Overholt, D. Electronic Kintsugi: An investigation of everyday crafted objects in tangible interaction design. Proceedings of the 2018 IEEE Future Technologies Conference. Springer, 2018

Carpenter, V. J., Kampmann, B., Stella, A., Maunsbach, M., Minovski, M., Ville-France, N., & Overholt, D. (2018, September). MusicFabrik: a playable, portable speaker. In Proceedings of the 10th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (pp. 701-705). ACM.

Møller, N., Overholt, D., Carpenter, V., Stella, A., Kampmann, B., Minovski, M. and Maunsbach, M. (2018). SketchyTuna: Exploring A Design For Screenless Creativity. Zenodo.