Bud vase features Marc Hedlund 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.

43 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Matt 27 Apr 05

Holy cow! Every once in a while, you come upon something on the web that beautifully crystallizes a whole bunch of vague thoughts you’ve had/read/heard, in turn spurring a whole bunch of new interesting thoughts. This post is one of those times.

Many thanks, Marc!

Cheers to all!

Justin P. 27 Apr 05

The real reason they added the bud vase to the new Beetle was because it was on of those fancy add-on features of the original Beetle in the 50’s. Had to point it out, being a VW freak myself :)

Not Justin P 27 Apr 05

So the real reason they added the bud vase wasn’t to add personality, but to emulate the personality the 50’s Beetle had?

Sounds exactly like what Marc is talking about ;)

Hippy 27 Apr 05


Edvard 27 Apr 05

To tell the truth it seems I’ve been doing the same each time I saw the new beetle � I would look inside to see what’s with that flower thing. And it’s mostly there! Each time a slight surprise. I imagined they had plastic flowers in there but yeah… why not go for the real ones :)

Dana O 27 Apr 05

I just heard about something called Lovemarks. This is a great way of getting a product/company to become a lovemark.

Joel 28 Apr 05

Now if only base camp would let us use our own CSS file to really change the look of it. That would truly let us bring out our “personality”.

andreas 28 Apr 05

Great post, Marc. You’ve put in succinct words some vagued thought I’ve had for a long time.

I think this also shows that the approach of “pure practicability” (you may also call it bare usability) doesn’t work. People do want something that works fine but it should also be beautiful to them.

automatt 28 Apr 05

I love the idea of features that evoke emotion.

Nick Stenning 28 Apr 05

Thanks for sharing this with us Marc. You pin down exactly some really important points for product design, and the reflection of these in Basecamp is very true, and very helpful.


Susheel Javadi 28 Apr 05

A really splendid article….You write beautifully!

Brad 28 Apr 05

These bud vase features are probably the reason why I check out Apple’s website at least once a week and Microsoft’s website only once a year. I use both operating systems every day, about 12 hours a day on Windows and only 1-2 hours a day on the Mac, but there’s so much more joy apparent in Apple’s approach that it’s much more compelling.

geeky 28 Apr 05

Now that you mention it, I’m a total sucker for bud vase features. I think I may like them even more than the base functionality of a product.

Jim Thompson 28 Apr 05

The beautiful design of my iPod (2nd gen) is very much a bud vase feature. It has nothing to do with the functionality of the iPod. In fact, there are other mp3 players that have better features, especially longer battery life. But why do people, including me (a pretty hard core tech person who would rather use linux than MacOS or Windows), fall in love with their iPods? Partly because it’s so easy to use, but also because it’s so damned beautiful. It’s just a sheer joy to look at.

Neil 28 Apr 05

Perhaps a wiki is a bud vase garden, then: hundreds of people putting in their own flower, clipping other peoples’ flowers, only for the sense of satisfaction of having contributed something themselves. Opensource software might be similar too.

I think this works more because of the ‘bringing nature inside’ aspect: if you spend all day in a fluo-lit, plastic-furnished office working with the Windows logo as your desktop you’ll be less happy than the guy in a naturally-lit, wood-furnished, plant filled office with your cutesy dog-pics as the background.

Machines (PCs, VWs etc) aren’t natural. Good design can help us forget that, making us feel happier.

John A. Davis 28 Apr 05

I don’t care if it rains or freezes,
Long as I got my plastic Jesus,
Sitting on the dashboard of my car,
I can go 60 I can go 80,
As long as I got my plastic lady,
sitting on the dashboard of my car… …

Benjy 28 Apr 05

I, too, have been amazed at the high percentage of Beetles that have flowers — real or fake — in the bud vase.

Now has there been any sort of accessories market to develop around alternate uses for the bud vase or the hole it goes into? Seems it might be a handy location for an iPod cradle, cell phone holder, etc.

beto 28 Apr 05

In our job as user experience consultants we tend to scoff at any idea that we think gets in the way of the purpose of a given web page or application, and deem it “useless”. This compulsive need to justify every color, word and form on our applications from a ROI / usability / practical perspective sometimes makes us miss on the little details that can make a lot of difference - like the VW Beetle vase, which delivers added value of its own - not in an accountable, but emotional, way. So what we initially think as “useless” we realize over time it isn’t really so. After all, we are humans, not machines, and we would just get so far in life if it were not for emotions, which play a role on everything we do, know, use and work with, even if at a subconscious level.

Donnie Jeter 28 Apr 05

Wow, great write-up. I was briefly annoyed with the whole flower thing when the 98’s first rolled out - if only I would have known how important they are.

Adam Machado 28 Apr 05

I had always been interested in the vases. I own a 1974 beetle and wanted on to customize for my car. Unfortunatly they were made for earlier modles. Nice write up with good information.

Kim U 28 Apr 05

Really interesting article.

The flower vase wasn’t a major factor in deciding to purchase my beetle, but it does make me smile when I get in the car. I’ve even had people ask me about it at stoplights. Sorry to burst the real flower bubble though, the flower in my car is fake. No reason not to be a real flower in it though — the vase is removable so you could take it out and clean it easily.

softie 30 Apr 05

Thanks for writing this and putting into perspective a happily successful marketing tool. I wonder if volkswagen would have thought to do it if it hadn’t been done to those great old beetles in the 50’s.

MSRao 11 Jun 05


G.Meissl 03 Nov 05

Versicherungsmakler aus �sterreich

G.Meissl 03 Nov 05

Versicherungsmakler aus Oesterreich

reana 17 Nov 05

its hot

Paul 06 Jan 06

I modified my bud vase to hold my iPod nano. Screw flowers. But it makes me feel nice just like flowers, and a whole lot less gay than flowers in my car would.

Loe 22 Jan 06

Volkswagen rulez

p thain 20 Mar 06

does anybody know where to get a metal vw vase?