Multi-functional neglect


An increasing number of products are multifunctional. For example, many of the 2 billion smartphones currently in use (Poushter 2016) possess the functionality of a phone, a web browser, a camera, a GPS, a computer etc. Some have suggested that the adoption of multifunctional devices will lead to dematerialization; where once consumers needed many separate products, they can now rely on a single device to perform all tasks (Marian L. 2012; Tasaki et al. 2012; Ryen et al. 2015). Recent survey data, however, suggests that instead of relying on one multifunctional device, consumers now rely on a community of multifunctional devices, using them interchangeably to preform similar tasks. Furthermore, even though multifunctional devices such as smartphones are by no means cheap, most smartphones are replaced more frequently that T-shirts, despite being in good working condition (Wieser and Tröger 2017; Geyer and Blass 2010). Thus, contrary to the popular belief that multifunctional products promote dematerialization, they may in fact have the opposite effect through increased replacement frequency and biased substitution evaluations.


In this research we examine whether these consumption patterns are enabled (in part) by people’s tendency to discount the utility of various functions when they are performed by a single, multifunctional device versus by separate devices. For example, imagine that a new model of a smartphone is released. Many of the functions are nearly the same as the previous model (GPS, storage, etc.), but the camera has been significantly improved. A consumer may readily replace the entire smartphone, essentially only to gain the improved functionality of the camera, thereby duplicating nearly all of the functions of her older model smartphone[1] The question we ask here is, hypothetically, would the same consumer be as likely to upgrade if those same functions were performed by separate devices (i.e., a separate camera, phone, GPS, etc.)?


In a series of five studies, we show that predictions regarding declining consumption may fail to account for a powerful countervailing force: namely, people’s tendency to discount the utility of various features when they are performed by a single, multifunctional device versus by separate devices. We argue that because multifunctional devices bundle many functions together on a single device, each individual function may be given less weight than if those same functions were performed by separate devices. Our studies examining a range of product categories (including consumer electronics, office equipment, and simple, non-electronic products -a Swiss army knife) demonstrate that such “multifunctional neglect” can bias consumers’ perceptions, and may lead to the purchase of redundant devices that are energy and material intensive.


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[1] Moreover, replaced multifunctional devices are often discarded, but not recycled or resold so the utility of the duplicated functions is often lost. And, consumers may be likely to purchase further specialized devices that are redundant with existing functions—for example, a consumer may purchase a dedicated MP3 player for the gym, rather than use the older, discarded smartphone.