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July 02 2013


Emotional Design with A.C.T. – Part 2

Back in Part 1, we looked at how the emotions expressed by people and products communicate personality traits over time. We also learned that customers are attracted to things that have an aesthetic personality that’s similar to their own,1 but they prefer products that take on a complementary role during interaction.2

In Part 2, we’ll look at how relationships are formed when people interact with products over time, and we’ll explore how people experience the emotion of “love.” Then, we’ll examine how basic product goals like desirability, usability, and usefulness relate to the different types of love. Finally, we’ll explore the A.C.T. model, a user-friendly take on using existing frameworks for designing emotional experiences.

Designing relationships

People attribute personalities to products and interfaces and expect those products to interact according to human social rules.3 Our emotional responses to the marketing, purchase, and use of products combine over time to create emotional experiences, which further combine to create emotional relationships.4 The quality of these accumulated interactions can mark the beginning (or end) of a “relationship” between the person and the product.

Throughout our lives, we’ve all been exposed to different types of relationships, both personally and through media. We have acquaintances, coworkers, companions, friends, lovers, wives, husbands, and every combination in between. While all these relationships are important, the people we love tend to have a special place in our hearts and minds.

But even amongst those we “love,” there are a number of different relationships. Some relationships are short, passionate flings based solely on attraction or lust. Others, though lacking in physical attraction, are deep, intimate friendships formed through ongoing interaction and conversation. Others are simple marriages of convenience with a firm commitment, but little passion or intimacy.

Although these relationships might seem to be very different, the people involved might still call the emotion they share “love.” This suggests that we’re using a single term to describe what may be several different emotions. Because of this, it can be difficult to come to a mutual understanding of what the word love really means.

Some people, for example, will emphatically say how much they love certain products. But when they say they “love” products, what do they really mean? What exactly is required to feel love for a product? Is it different from the love two people might feel for one another? Is love an appropriate emotion for relationships with products?

We can gain new insights into the formation of human-product relationships by understanding how humans form relationships with one another. Let’s take a look at the different ways people experience the emotion of love to get a better understanding of what it means to “love” a product.

How do I love thee?

Sternberg5 has described human relationships in terms of three forms of love.

Forms of Love

  • Passion (Infatuated Love)
  • Intimacy (Friendship)
  • Commitment (Empty Love)

 Passion, Intimacy, Commitment
Forms of love
(Sternberg, 1988), diagram: (van Gorp, 2009)


Passion is based on aesthetics. We’re passionately attracted to certain people because of how they look, sound, smell, feel and taste. These aesthetic cues communicate information about health, reproductive fitness, fertility, and social status to potential partners 7 8. We generally evaluate these cues automatically without conscious consideration.

If a relationship had Passion but lacked Intimacy and Commitment, it would be called Infatuated Love, or lust5. This form of love would describe the quick fling or one-night stand. According to Sternberg5, relationships based solely on Passion tend to burn out quickly. We tend to be attracted to people who are about as attractive, wealthy, and educated as ourselves (i.e. those who are similar to us).


Sternberg5 defines Intimacy as Friendship, rather than sexual intimacy. Achieving Intimacy usually requires repeated conversation and interaction over time. You don’t really get to know someone well without spending time together in a variety of situations.

When we engage in conversation with another person, we make both unconscious and conscious evaluations of them. We judge whether our styles of interaction are complementary and comfortable, or similar and conflicting. Does the other person constantly interrupt when you’re talking? Are you always butting heads over who’s in charge? Does he or she give you the amount of respect you feel you deserve?

If all you had with another person was Intimacy, you’d probably be very close friends. However, you’d likely not feel much Passion or sexual attraction. If someone has ever told you that they love you, but aren’t “in love” with you, it’s likely that they were talking about feeling Intimacy without Passion.


Commitment is a mutually agreed upon agreement. In marriage, an individual consciously enters into a public contract with another person. Even in long-term relationships outside of marriage, the majority of couples in the western world still commit to an exclusive partnership. And yet, without Passion or Intimacy, Commitment is merely an empty agreement. If the only thing you had with someone was a Commitment, without any Passion or Intimacy, you’d have what Sternberg5 calls “Empty Love.”

Depending on the context, one or more of the three forms of love can occur at different times in a relationship. In the western world, Commitment usually comes after we’ve had a chance to evaluate our levels of Passion and Intimacy. At that point, we’ve hopefully decided whether the other person’s personality is a good fit for our own. In other parts of the world this may not be the case. Arranged marriages are one example of a relationship that begins with Commitment, with the expectation of Passion and Intimacy developing later.

Design goals, types of reactions & triune brain

At this point, you may be wondering how all of this relates to designing emotional experiences that encourage relationships. To start with, we could draw some parallels between the three forms of love and the three categories of product requirements I mentioned in Part 1. Here’s a quick recap:

  • Desirable
  • Usable
  • Useful

(Sanders, 1992)

Useful, Usable, Desirable

Design Goals
adapted from: (Sanders, 1992), image: (van Gorp, 2012)

Discussions of emotional design often focus almost exclusively on the aesthetics or Desirability of a product. However, much like a three-legged stool, the qualities of Usability and Usefulness still need to be there for the product to stand on its own. For software and web applications, all three legs of the stool need to be there to support repeat usage and interaction.

The most primitive part of our brain (i.e. the reptilian brain), is automatic and generates unconscious emotional responses. The part of our brain that we share with mammals and a few other vertebrates (i.e. the mammalian brain), is also largely unconscious and creates our emotional experiences. The most highly evolved part of our brains (i.e. the neomammalian brain), is conscious and is where we form complex emotional relationships. These different levels of brain function can help us understand how relationships develop through small, repeated interactions.

Emotional: Responses, Experiences, Relationships

(Demir, 2008), diagram: (van Gorp & Adams, 2012)

Over time, simple emotional responses from the reptilian brain combine with the processing of social cues from the mammalian brain to form experiences, which combine with our thoughts and emotions from the neomammalian brain to create relationships.

Design goals, types of reactions, and forms of love

Let’s quickly examine how the different types of love relate to designing for emotion. The user is attracted to the product’s aesthetics, triggering the Desire or passion to approach. If the user finds the product Usable and easy to interact with, he or she may begin to feel greater connection or intimacy with the product. If the product then displays its Usefulness by reliably and consistently fulfilling its purpose, trust and commitment can result.

Design Goals, Forms of Love, Product Elements, Types of Reactions

Comparing Models

(Sanders, 1992)(Sternberg, 1988)(Demir, 2008)(McLean, 1990), diagram: (van Gorp & Adams, 2012)

Desirability is connected to product aesthetics. Usability is connected to the quality of interaction, and usefulness is connected to how well the product functions. For complex products, this process repeats itself with each use, continuing over time to form deeper relationships.

The types of love

Just as there are different types of relationships between people, there are different types of relationships between people and products. For products where the context of use is a short relationship (as with a disposable product), focusing on a single type of love (or a single leg of the stool) may be fine. Various combinations of the three forms of love describes many of the common relationships we see in our lives.

Types of love

  • Passion + Intimacy = Romantic Love
  • Passion + Commitment = Fatuous or Illusory Love
  • Intimacy + Commitment = Companionate Love
  • Passion + Intimacy + Commitment = Consummate Love

(Sternberg, 1988)

Ideal Human Relationship model

Types of Love
(Sternberg, 1988), diagram: (van Gorp, 2009)

Passion (Desirable) + Intimacy (Usable) = Romantic Love

When you combine the attraction of passion with the interaction and conversation of intimacy, you get Romantic Love. In human relationships Romantic Love describes physical attraction, along with a sense of deep intimate connection, without any formal commitment.

In relationships with products, we can envision attractive, usable products and services that don’t require long-term investments. Virgin Mobile, for example, offers attractive usable phones with no contractual commitment. The target audience is young and drawn to the idea of not committing to a phone plan. Even the marketing of the page–Why “Go” Beyond Talk?–could be taken as a metaphor for moving to another stage in a relationship.

Virgin Mobile

Passion (Desirable) + Commitment (Useful) = Illusory love

Combining passion and commitment without any intimacy generally makes a poor foundation for a long-term relationship. This may be why Sternberg5 calls this combination “Fatuous” or Illusory Love. One example of this type of relationship would be a “sugar daddy” style relationship, where one partner is involved purely for passion, and the other is involved purely for commitment and the financial rewards that come with it.

In the world of design, attractive but unusable products are one source of this type of Illusory Love. We may purchase a product, attracted purely by its slick marketing or pleasing visual design, only to find that although it looks good on the surface and functions acceptably, it’s difficult to operate and frustrating to use.

Intimacy (Usable) + Commitment (Useful) = Companionate Love

When we combine Intimacy and Commitment, we get a good companion, hence the label Companionate Love5. This type of human relationship would describe a couple who are not physically attracted to each other, but are friendly and committed.

When we think of Companionate Love in terms of product relationships, we can imagine more utilitarian products. They’re easy to use, reliable, and perform the task for which they were designed. However, they don’t create that spark of attraction and desire, so there’s little passion involved. An example of this type of love would be your favorite hairbrush. This brush might be the one that does such a great job of styling your hair, you don’t need any other brushes. You probably don’t think much about your hairbrush when you’re not around it. But like the loss of an old friend, you may only really appreciate it once it’s gone.


Passion + Intimacy + Commitment = Consummate Love

Occasionally, human relationships seem to encompass all three forms of love. These relationships have achieved what Sternberg5 calls “all consuming” or Consummate Love. The people involved are passionately attracted to one another, have a deep intimate friendship, and a strong abiding commitment.

In human-product relationships, if a product has achieved trust by communicating a clear and consistent personality over repeated interactions, the user may be willing to consciously Commit and engage in transactions with the product. Transactions that lead to the formation of relationships leave us practically and emotionally satisfied in the long term. For interactive products that are used repeatedly, Consummate Love is what we are seeking to elicit from our users.

Designing relationships with A.C.T.

The A.C.T. model embodies the different forms of love, and can help you envision product development as a process of building relationships with users. The terms in the acronym A.C.T. were chosen to help designers understand the requirements they need to fulfill at each stage: Attract, Converse, Transact.

A.C.T. explores the relationship between Sternberg’s levels of love (passion, intimacy, and commitment) and product requirements to produce a model that is both more prescriptive for designers and more communicative for business stakeholders.

Ideal Product Relationship
A.C.T. Model

(van Gorp, 2009)

Let’s quickly summarize the perspectives embodied in the A.C.T.


  • Desirability (do users find the aesthetics appealing?)
  • Aesthetic properties of the product (i.e. look, sound, smell, touch, and taste)
  • Passion
  • Unconscious, automatic responses
  • Reptilian brain


  • Usability (i.e. ease of use)
  • How the product interacts with the user
  • Intimacy
  • Unconscious and conscious experiences
  • Mammalian brain


  • Usefulness
  • Whether the product fulfills its function
  • Commitment
  • Conscious relationships
  • Neomammalian (human) brain

A.C.T. Model

A.C.T. Model Comparison

adapted from: (Sanders, 1992)(Sternberg, 1988)(Demir, 2008)(McLean, 1990), diagram: (van Gorp & Adams, 2012)


We judge products by the personalities we sense through their aesthetics and style of interaction. It takes the skill and sensitivity of designers, marketers and user experience professionals to properly identify the personality that appeals to their target audience, and then consistently design, market, advertise and package that product with the appropriate personality in mind. The A.C.T. Model can help practitioners to more fully and systematically address the requirements that lead to successful products.

To explore this idea in depth, Edie Adams and I have written a book on creating better relationships between people and products. If you’re interested in learning more about emotional design, designing personality and the A.C.T. Model, pick up a copy of Design for Emotion. The book includes over 130 images and examples, interviews with industry experts, and case studies to help you do a better job of designing for emotion, personality and relationship. You can also get a free copy of Chapter 1 of Design for Emotion here.

- Portions of this post are excerpts from Design for Emotion, by Trevor van Gorp and Edie Adams -


Govers, P. C. M., & Schoormans, J. P. L. (2005). “Product personality and its influence on consumer preference”. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 22(4), 189–197.

Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2007). “Romantic ideals, romantic obtainment, and relationship experiences: The complementarity of interpersonal traits among romantic partners”. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(4), 517–533.

Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1998). The media equation: How people treat computers, television and new media like real people and places. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Demîr, E. (2008). “The Field of Design and Emotion: Concepts, Arguments, Tools and Current Issues”. METU JFA, 1(1), 135.

Sternberg, R. J. (1988). The Triangle of Love: Intimacy, Passion, Commitment. New York: Basic Books.

van Gorp, Trevor. (2009). Emotional Design with A.C.T. Poster: 2010 IA Summit. Phoenix, AZ.

7Buss, David. (2003). The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating. New York: Basic Books.

Etcoff, N. (2000). Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. Anchor Books.

Sanders, E. B. N. (1992, Fall). “Converging perspectives: Product development research for the 1990s”. Design Management Journal, 3(4), 49–54.

10 van Gorp, Trevor, & Adams, E. (2012). Design for Emotion. Boston: Morgan Kaufmann/Elsevier.

11 McLean, P. D. (1990). The triune brain in evolution: Role in paleocerebral functions. New York: Plenum Press.

March 13 2012

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May 20 2011


Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After

Advertisement in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After
 in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After  in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After  in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After

I remember when we first met. We hit it off instantly, and it didn’t take long before I was in love. I introduced her to my family, and they all loved her, too. Hell, I even convinced my wife that she was perfect. We’ve been happily together now for years. I spend a good portion of my day with her and, yes… sometimes she joins my wife and I in bed. Although, not much sleeping gets done; I’m typically too busy studying curves.

Save your scarlet letter. If you’ve read part one — Relationship Engineering: Designing Attraction — you know that I’m not talking about some affair. I’m describing my relationship with Apple and their slew of gadgetry. Even when it’s not practical, I still find myself wanting the latest Apple iWhatever.

Klimt in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After
The Kiss, Gustav Klimt (Image: Wikipedia)

It seems I’m not alone in this addiction; according to a recent survey, 74 percent of iPad purchasers already own a Mac and 66 percent of them own iPhones. Not only does Apple engineer marvelous products, they also engineer extremely strong relationships with their audience.

In part one, we explored the ways in which brands spark our proverbial flame and get us interested in their products. Here we’ll delve into what keeps that flame alive and converts our interest into love and possibly even obsession.


Maintaining a long-term relationship is not easy; things can easily become stale. Looks and personality are crucial in developing attraction, but people need more from a serious relationship. To create a strong and long-lasting bond, two other elements are needed: simplicity and reward.

Simplicity and reward dance a delicate equilibrium. Each influences the impact of the other. If the relationship is too simple, its rewards are dulled; too difficult, and the relationship might break. Achieving a harmony between the two will build a momentum that keeps the relationship moving.

The back and forth of simplicity and reward creates a wave of satisfaction, which people undoubtedly want to ride. Select brands are making huge waves by implementing these principles to create exciting and engaging experiences. Let’s examine some of the factors that determine simplicity and reward.


Da-vinci in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After

Sophisticated relationships are the product of simplicity. You could begin a relationship with someone on the other side of the world, but its sophistication would remain fairly juvenile; the distance makes it complicated. However, if that person moved across the street, your relationship would have more opportunity to flourish.

Difficulty is inevitable in relationships, but a bond will rarely survive continuous strife. So, we gravitate towards people who are easy to get along with. This criteria is defined in different regards: geographical proximity, conversation flow, harmony of beliefs and so on.

Simplicity is even more important when it comes to the products we choose. Our evaluation of simplicity with a product is often more fickle than with a person. This is especially true on the internet where options are bountiful and only a click away. It’s our responsibility as designers to ensure every aspect of the experience has as little friction as possible.

It’s easy to mistake complexity for sophistication. And quite often, products and interfaces are made unnecessarily complex with extraneous features. As designers, we need to recognize that a truly sophisticated experience is one that transforms complexity instead of accentuating it.

Apple vs. Microsoft

Let’s compare the support pages of Apple and Microsoft and derive a simple friction analysis — an evaluation of how easy it is for a user to achieve a goal. We’ll assume the user has arrived at this page in need of some assistance with their operating system. Areas of the page offering contact with a human have been highlighted in green to indicate low friction as it puts the problem-solving in the hands of the company. Yellow areas indicate self-help mechanisms, which add mild friction. If an area is irrelevant or offers very little help, it has been marked in red.

Apple in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After
Apple Support website

Microsoft in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After
Microsoft Support website

Apple-microsoft in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After

Apple offers less friction in their customer support process and, and in doing so, strengthens the relationships with their customers. They offer more self-help options and many more ways of contacting an actual person. It’s interesting that Microsoft devotes nearly half of their page to push products, social media and news. They ignore the fact that someone is going there for help. It’s like trying to confide in a friend, but instead of offering guidance, they ask you to buy some Girl Scout cookies and suggest that Thin Mints taste even better frozen. It makes things difficult and hurts the long-term relationship.

Netflix vs. Blockbuster

Started in 1985, Blockbuster once ran supreme as the media rental giant. Brick-and-mortar stores across the country offered convenient access to movies. Instead of purchasing a movie, you could simply rent it. It seems trivial today, but the idea was novel at the time.

Blockbuster quickly grew into a multi-billion dollar empire with thousands of stores in the U.S. and seventeen other countries. However, Blockbuster is currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Why?

Consumer needs drive the evolution of simplicity, and Blockbuster failed to address the complexities in their business model. Why should we be required to drive to a store to pick up and return movies? Why should movie rentals be so expensive? And why should we be charged late fees? Netflix addressed these questions, and took an evolutionary leap by harnessing the power of the web.

Netflix’s rental-by-mail service revolutionized the industry. Browsing movie choices on your home computer is much easier than going to a store only to realize the movie you want is out of stock. Because Netflix offered a subscription instead of a pay-as-you-go model, they removed even more complexity from the process by eliminating due dates and late fees.

Unlike Blockbuster, Netflix did not just change the industry once and ride the wave. They continued to innovate. Realizing the complexities in their own business model, they introduced a new solution to simplify things even further: on-demand streaming. Members can instantly stream a movie to their home computer, cellphone, iPad, gaming console, DVD player or one of many other devices. By removing friction, they built stronger relationships with their audience.

Netflix and Blockbuster both offer the same experience: entertainment. However, Netflix made the process of achieving that experience much simpler. The evolution of an industry is driven by demand, but determined by simplicity. Netflix knew this, and became a blockbuster of its own.

To Sum Up

  • Simple relationships are sophisticated relationships.
  • A friction analysis can be an effective tool in measuring simplicity.
  • Survival relies on eliminating friction from the user experience.
  • Thin Mints taste great out of the freezer.


Arrested-development in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After

Relationships are exciting, especially in the early stages of courtship. We have an entire hierarchy of rewards to achieve. In some relationships, the rewards are purely physical, while others go deeper and offer rewards such as marriage, children and bingo partners.

The satisfaction of a reward is driven by desire. The stronger the desire, the greater the satisfaction. In order to build someone’s desire, there must be something concrete that they lack. Traditional advertising often features a sexy celebrity using their product. In addition to its sex appeal, this technique also outlines numerous deficits which we desire to fill. We may lack the product, but more importantly, we lack celebrity. Fame has been elevated to a virtue within our society, and it’s perceived to be extremely satisfying.

Kim-ad in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After

By paralleling a product with a celebrity, brands aim to raise the perceived satisfaction of their product (for more on this, pick up a copy of Cialdini’s Influence). You may have had no previous desire for the product, but the advertiser unveiled something you lack, and that lacking triggers the emotion of desire.

Another common way of increasing satisfaction is through challenge. We, as humans, love a good challenge. Puzzles, sports, even video games are all unnecessary challenges that we willingly bring into our lives. Defeating an opponent, whether concrete (e.g. an opposing sports team) or more abstract (e.g. solving a puzzle), offers a sense of satisfaction.

Challenge must be carefully managed, because it goes against the bonding power of simplicity. Desire will increase as things become more difficult, but only to a point. Once the amount of difficulty outweighs the anticipated satisfaction, people become frustrated. And frustration can flip peoples’ desire for reward into desire for your demise.

Call of Duty

The video game industry is arguably the most successful implementer of the challenge methodology. Most games set forth a hierarchical reward system, which rewards players for achieving certain objectives — the more difficult the objective, the greater the reward. This system builds an extremely strong bond with the player.

Activision’s Call of Duty is one of the hottest video game franchises on the market. The latest release of Call of Duty: Black Ops set the first-day sales record not only for a video game, but for the entire entertainment industry. In fact, it pulled in $360 million in North America in one day, which is more than four times what Avatar made in its opening weekend.

The game features a compelling story mode, but the real relationship-building aspect of the game is its multiplayer mode. Each player starts off with a limited array of weapons and perks. They are rewarded with in-game currency for achieving different objectives, which can be used to unlock new munitions, upgrade weapon attachments, customize camouflage and even modify face paint. Leveling up to the highest rank and unlocking everything requires a significant amount of gameplay, but that’s only the beginning.

Cod-medals in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After
Source: Call of Duty icons

After you’ve been promoted to the highest rank, you’re given the option to go “Prestige” and start from scratch. You sacrifice everything you’ve unlocked in exchange for a new medal next to your name. The medal is nothing more than an icon but, within the community, it’s a badge of pride. Not only does this set the pros apart from the n00btubers, it builds an obsession that keeps players coming back for each release in the series.


Being frugal is hip nowadays. Thanks to companies like Groupon and LivingSocial, coupons have been revitalized in a big way. Instead of clipping them from newspapers circular ads, however, people receive them daily in their email.

Leading the pack is Groupon, which offers a deal-a-day from local businesses. What started in Chicago with a half-off pizza coupon has skyrocketed into a worldwide movement with more than thirty-five million users. So, how has Groupon started such a craze over something as simple as a coupon? Simple… by creating a low-friction, high reward system, for both consumer and retailer.

Groupon in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After

Groupon is capable of offering discounts upwards of 90% off by using a mechanism known as the “assurance contract.” Each retailer offers a high-level discount through Groupon, but only honors that discount if a set number of people purchase it. Groupon will then take a 50% cut for facilitating. If the number of purchases isn’t met, the deal is off and everyone who purchased the coupon gets their money back.

This “can’t lose” system encourages people to take prompt action. Not only does the expiration timer add a sense of urgency, but the fact that a certain number of people must participate adds incentive to share the offer with friends and family.

Groupon also offers a $10 reward for referring a friend. They could have simply asked people to refer a friend, but the reward makes it all the more appealing. However, the reward can only be redeemed after the friend makes a purchase on Groupon. This encourages you to constantly annoy your friends about the service, since you now have a stake in their actions.

Groupon is an elegant example of reward mechanics in action. Harnessing urgency, assurance contracts, and social incentives is a powerful way to create millions of relationships. Ultimately though, the system relies on the balance of reward and complexity. Offering great rewards yields great rewards.

To Sum Up

  • Rewards increase engagement, but only if the anticipated satisfaction is greater than the difficulty required in achieving it.
  • Difficulty will raise the anticipated satisfaction to a point. If the threshold is broken, however, satisfaction quickly flips to frustration.
  • Outlining deficits invokes the desire to achieve them.
  • Game mechanics build enjoyable difficulty and encourage participation.


Socrates in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After

Love is precious. Regardless of how much time and effort is put into a relationship, it remains fragile. We make all efforts to preserve it: we tailor our lives around the other person; we buy them gifts to show we care; we sacrifice for their sake. The idea that the relationship could end abruptly keeps us in a state of caring and preservation.

We also act with a preservation mentality with the products we love. People love wrapping their mobile devices in sleek, designer cases. They have a close relationship with their phone, and shelling out the extra money for a case helps preserve that relationship.

Honestly though, how often has a case actually saved your device from an otherwise irreparable demise? Chances are, not very often. Yet, the mobile accessory market is booming. Apple is cashing in on the must-have-a-case syndrome with its Smart Cover made specifically for the iPad 2. Some estimate that the new Smart Cover could ring in $1 Billion for Apple in 2011.

Still, you can’t help but wonder why such a large market has been built up around the preservation of devices which are only designed to last for a couple of years. I believe it has to do with the design of superficial fragility.

Why does the iPod have a mirrored back? Why not a brushed aluminum case like the iPad? Because the mirrored surface is very fragile. It’s hard to even take an iPod out of its box without scratching it. Scratches on the back don’t affect the performance of the device, but they do affect our perception of it. This superficial fragility is effective planned obsolescence, which is the lifeblood of the tech industry.

Planned obsolescence is essentially the engineering of a product to have a predetermined lifespan. The hope is to hook people into repeat purchases once the product is deemed useless or obsolete. This concept is nothing new. It has been driving profits and innovation in numerous industries — from gadgets to fashion — since the 1930’s.

Sometimes this technique actually prevents you from using the product any longer. For example, the lithium batteries in most of our electronic devices utilize integrated circuits to restrict the number of times the battery can be recharged. Even though the battery is capable of a full-recharge, the integrated chip prevents it.

Other times obsolescence is all about perception. The fashion industry relies on seasons and fads to dictate when you should purchase new clothing. Software companies use versioning to implement new features, which puts you behind the curve of innovation.

Even the Web design industry relies heavily on perceived obsolescence. Web technologies evolve so quickly that using something that was hip last year could render you obsolete this year. “Your site’s built in XHTML and not HTML5?! Gasp!”

Html-logos in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After

It’s easy to view planned obsolescence as an unethical practice, and in some cases it may be. However, use of this tactic forces brands to respect the fact that without us, they cannot survive. This urges them to act responsibly and to keep pace with innovation. It all comes back to the balance of simplicity and reward. Upgrading is a difficulty, but we’ll do it if the rewards are high enough.

Angry Birds

The Angry Birds franchise is a prime example of obsolescence done respectively. Like most games, the product obsoletes when someone has completed every objective. For some, this means finishing every level. For others, it requires earning three stars on every level. Still others will continue to play until they’ve acquired all of the hidden bonuses. Eventually, a player will hit their idea of “complete” and the product becomes obsolete in their mind.

Angry-birds in Relationship Engineering: Designing The Happily Ever After

Expansions can rejuvenate an otherwise stale relationship. Angry Birds expansion packs serve as a love-cycle reboot. Rovio (the creators of Angry Birds) could release updates for the game to offer new levels or challenges. Instead, they release separate stand-alone apps, requiring players to make new purchases. This is a small price to maintain a loving relationship.

This form of obsolescence puts the power in the hands of the consumer. It doesn’t force an upgrade. It simply offers a way to keep the relationship alive. If the brand continues to offer rewarding experiences, there’s no need to force obsolescence. People will continue to upgrade out of choice.

To Sum Up

  • Fragility strengthens relationships and fosters a worship mentality.
  • Obsolescence powers the wheel of innovation.
  • Breakups (planned obsolescence) must be handled respectively to bring your audience back. People should want to upgrade, not be forced to.


Relationships are the puzzle pieces of our lives. Good relationships fit into the bigger picture; bad ones are tossed aside. The bonds we make with people run parallel to those with products. Brands that nurture relationships become integral to the human experience and ensure their own survival in the marketplace.

The web is the most prolific matchmaker ever. As designers, developers, and digital mavens, we have a responsibility to understand and respect the relationships that we build through our work. People want products that look sexy, and many designers have become really good at sparking that initial interest. However, that’s only part of the battle. Long-term relationships require design in a much broader sense than just visuals; they’re interactive and on-going experiences, which need to be nurtured. Would you date your product? Would you marry your brand?

Further Reading

(jvb) (vf)

© Thomas Giannattasio for Smashing Magazine, 2011. | Permalink | Post a comment | Smashing Shop | Smashing Network | About Us
Post tags: branding, relationship

April 26 2011


Proximity in Design: Why I Can’t Use My Car’s A/C

Advertisement in Proximity in Design: Why I Can’t Use My Car’s A/C
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I’m always fumbling with the A/C controls in my car. My daily commute is in hot, sunny Southern California, home of the courteous freeway driver. I can’t afford to take my eyes off the road for too long to find the control I’m looking for. Half of the time when I’m trying to adjust the temperature, I end up blowing my beard off because I’ve spun the wrong dial. If my wife’s in the car with me, I usually resort to asking her to do it for me.

Car in Proximity in Design: Why I Can’t Use My Car’s A/C

There’s a simple design principle that, had it been given greater attention, could have made this needlessly confusing interface much easier to use: proximity.

Dude, Which One’s My Car?

The human brain works by processing visual (and aural) input that occurs in proximity, either spatially or temporally. It then assembles this information into recognizable patterns and assigns meaning to it.

When I’m searching for my car in the parking lot, my eyes take in the size, shape, color and location of the cars I see (input). My brain then determines that I’m seeing an SUV, a truck, and 27 Honda Civics (patterns). Finally my brain tells me which vehicles are not mine until I “recognize” the pattern that is my car (meaning).

Tyrannosaur Attack

This pattern-making ability also causes our brains to assign meaning and create relationships even when they may not actually exist. In the film Jurassic Park, a Tyrannosaurus Rex grabs a smaller dinosaur in its teeth and shakes it around, killing it. The sound of this attack could not be recorded while shooting the scene (dinosaurs are, much to the chagrin of every school-age boy, still very much extinct). And so sound engineer Gary Rydstrom set out to create a sound that would convincingly sell the on-screen images.


So what sound recording did Rydstrom use to emulate a seven-ton predator ripping through the flesh of its prey? None other than his own Russell Terrier, Buster, playing with a rope toy! If you watch the scene knowing this, the effect is rather cheesy and unbelievable. But for the unsuspecting viewer, the brain willingly interprets the simultaneity of visual and aural inputs as indicating relationship and meaning. We see a dinosaur eating and we hear a simultaneous sound. Our brain tells us “this is the sight and sound of a T-Rex eating its prey.”

Proximity Without Purpose

In my car, as I’m trying to determine which button to press or dial to spin, my brain is analyzing the proximity of these various controls to discern a pattern which will help me make sense of their functions.

Let’s take a closer look:

Labels in Proximity in Design: Why I Can’t Use My Car’s A/C
Top Row (left to right): Air temperature, front window defrost, fan speed. 2nd Row: Fan off, fan mode (chest, feet, etc), A/C power. Bottom Row: Re-circulate, rear defrost, rear (back seat) fan, outside temperature indicator.

The controls are a combination of push buttons and dials that affects two basic functions: fan speed and air temperature. Each of the three control groups is comprised of one dial and one or two buttons. My pattern-seeking brain assumes that the buttons and dials are placed and grouped in a manner that has meaning. Unfortunately for my brain, in this case they aren’t.

Here’s a common two-step process I perform to cool down my car: I first turn on the A/C (step one) and then adjust the temperature (step two). To achieve this goal, I must:

  1. press the right bottom button and
  2. spin the left dial.

However, while avoiding collisions with tailgaters and cell-phone talkers, I often perform the wrong sequence. I:

  1. press the right bottom button (1, correct) and
  2. spin the same dial (2, incorrect).

By spinning the wrong dial (accidentally changing the fan speed) I end up with a hot jet blast to the face.

Reinforce Relationships

A very simple reorganization of my car’s controls would reinforce the relationships between controls and make the entire system easier to use. By placing all the controls that adjust fan speed, and all those that adjust air temperature close together, the position of each control will have assigned greater meaning and users’ overall mental effort will be decreased. The sum of these two factors (increased meaning and decreased mental effort) will result in greater user success.

Optimized in Proximity in Design: Why I Can’t Use My Car’s A/C
Controls are grouped by function to decrease mental effort and increase meaning.

In this revised layout, the controls’ proximity to the others reinforces their relationships. The left control group can be spun to adjust fan speed or pressed to turn the fan completely off. The right control group can be spun to adjust air temperature or pressed to further adjust the temperature (top button for automatic temperature, bottom button for A/C).

With these changes, my two-step process for cooling down the car is simplified. Step one is to turn on the A/C by pressing the bottom right button. Step two is to adjust the temperature by spinning the same dial.

Keeping Our Beards On

Understanding our brains’ fondness for creating meaning and patterns through proximity will help us create more intuitive interfaces and designs. If we take time to think about the way elements are positioned in relation to one each other, our interfaces will seem easier and more natural to our users. And nobody’s beard will get blown off.

Further Reading

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© dc for Smashing Magazine, 2011. | Permalink | Post a comment | Smashing Shop | Smashing Network | About Us
Post tags: case study, grouping, interface design, meaning, mental effort, proximity, relationship

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