Grasping Digital Ownership: Visibility, Substance, Value

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While on-demand viewing gains popularity, consumers are still reluctant to give up their DVDs in favour of a virtual library. Ostmodern’s own Digital Anthropologist and UX researcher explores how to make the transition less traumatic.

Grasping Digital

One of the biggest challenges currently facing video on demand is how to help viewers embrace the transition from physical to digital content ownership – and throw away their DVDs in favour of a virtual library.

UX research and design can play a key role in easing this transition by understanding why tangible objects, such as photos, CDs and DVDs, retain their value over digital content and applying that insight to product development.

At Ostmodern, we have looked at research by Daniela Petrelli and Steve Whittaker that makes comparisons between the values people attach to physical and digital mementos. The findings present some interesting insights that we believe are relevant to our design approach.

Most significantly, the research found that people tend to forget digital mementos in favour of physical objects when discussing memories in their home. The reasons for such oversights are threefold:

Firstly, digital mementos lack emotional and practical integration into everyday life. Physical objects are constant emotional ‘feel good’ triggers, comforting reminders of family and friends or cathartic, even self-defining experiences.

Unless being used, digital content is largely invisible, so fails to trigger emotions and memories attached to them. This presents a problem for digital, as content stored on different platforms are easily forgotten if not immediately visible. Hence, as tablets and mobile devices become increasingly integrated into people’s everyday lives, digital content needs to be better integrated into people’s everyday experience – VOD should have as great a presence on these devices as DVDs, blu-rays and even VHS have in people’s homes.


Secondly, there is a lack of confidence over the stability, accessibility and tangibility of digital content. Consequently, some people are unwilling to emotionally invest in pure on-demand, which may adversely affect their willingness to pay for content. UX designers can help overcome these issues by enabling people to connect with their digital content in a way that feels tangible and meaningful, allowing a real sense of control to reassure them that the content in question is truly theirs to keep.

Finally, the research revealed that people often feel that managing personal digital libraries requires too much effort. This is possibly where the finest balance must be struck. Too much onus on the user to maintain their content will lead to frustration and apathy, while too little control will remove the feeling of ownership. Users need an interface that is as easy and intuitive to maintain as, say, a shelf of DVDs.

The issues and behaviours highlighted in this research suggests that we are at a point of transition in which people embrace the benefits of digital content and devices, yet relate to them using values developed for the physical world.

At Ostmodern, we believe that brilliant UX design can facilitate this transition by creating robust yet elegant digital experiences that anticipate real-world anxieties, meet practical and emotional needs, highlight advantages and opportunities and shape expectations of what digital can offer.

References Petrelli, Daniela and Whittaker, Steve, 2010. ‘Family memories in the home: contrasting physical and digital mementos’ in Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 14 (2), p.153-169. Available from

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