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Relationship Engineering: Designing Attraction

“Look at her: so beautiful, so friendly, so smart. And what a personality. She must be mine. Hooking up with her would make me the envy of all my friends. Sure, she’s young and she’s gorgeous. Besides, I can easily try something new if I get bored or something better comes along.”

No, that’s not an excerpt from Lolita. As cruel and inappropriate as they might seem, these thoughts are fairly common in our society. In fact, in the past year, millions of people have entered into exactly that type of relationship. Don’t bother calling the Special Victims Unit; what we’re discussing here is not what you think it is. It’s the Apple iPad.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Apple seems to have entranced people. It’s hard to walk down the street without passing someone who is plugged in to those iconic white headphones or to enter a coffee shop without hearing someone gabbing on their iPhone. Apple’s stores are crowded, and its products sell in absurd quantities.

Why is this? Apple might be a visionary company with a strong grasp of what’s hip. Yet I believe Apple’s appeal lies in something more than trends, something deeply ingrained in our psyche: relationships.

Psyche Revived by the Kiss of Love, Antonio Canova. (Image: Wikipedia4)

We don’t simply own products; we have relationships with them. Intimate ones at that. We are in a state of courtship with every brand in existence. Each of them wants to be a part of our lives, and each wants love in return. Thinking about our relationships with particular products and brands in the same way that we think about interpersonal relationships yields interesting insights. When we decide to bring a person or product into our lives, we must first evaluate our options. The criteria we use to decide whether we love, hate or are indifferent to another person are the same we use to judge a product or brand.

There are many types of relationships, but we can put brand-consumer relationships into three categories: acquaintance, friend and lover.

When someone purchases a bag of apples at the grocery store, they’re demonstrating an acquaintanceship with apples. They’ve interacted with apples before, but there’s no deep attachment, and there has been very little bonding with the product.

The next step up — friendship — emerges because of branding. For example, I always purchase a certain brand of gum. I’ve come to know the brand and its offerings, and I enjoy having its product in my life. We’re friends, but that’s where the relationship ends. There’s no romance involved, and no longing or desire is felt.

Only certain brands manage to take the step from friend to lover. Apple is one of the most valuable companies5 in the world. It also provides a useful model of consumer courtship. Just about any iPhone user will proudly tell you, like a love-struck teenager on prom night, that they “love” their phone and would be “like, totally lost without it.” There are dozens of cell-phone manufacturers, but only one iPhone. Successful visionary companies, such as Apple, have mastered the art of relationship engineering.

Designing Attraction Link

Love is a burning thing, and it makes a fiery ring

Love is often likened to fire. In the early stages of a relationship, things start heating up. As the love grows stronger, the flames grow higher. When a relationship falls apart, we say that the fire has gone out. Whether someone lights or douses your fire has to do with the two core aspects of their being: how they appear on the outside and who they are on the inside. That is, a person’s appeal is based on two things: looks and personality. Let’s take a closer look at each of these aspects of appeal and examine how they influence people into relationships with brands and products.

Looks Link

I like big butts and I cannot lie. — Sir Mixalot, rapper and philosopher of aesthetics

Attractiveness spurs lust. It’s a simple cause-and-effect paradigm ingrained in our very nature. We all long for the cute guy or girl in class, and that same desire guides us when choosing a product.

Since the days of Plato, philosophers and artists have tried to pinpoint exactly what makes something aesthetically pleasing. No universal formula for beauty has ever been agreed upon. Beauty is subjective. The designer’s job is to appeal to the collective subjective, or the average of personal preferences. Doing so ensures a product appeals to the largest audience possible.

Making your product visually appealing is not superficial. In fact, design is often a product’s primary competitive advantage. iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player on the market; it didn’t have the largest capacity; it didn’t have the most features; and it certainly wasn’t the cheapest. It was, however, sexy. It was simple and self-explanatory. Its scrolling wheel was as intuitive as it was revolutionary. Perhaps most importantly, it introduced a unique and (now) iconic form factor. The market had been flooded with matte gray devices with black headphones, but this entrant had a clean white front and mirrored back. Even the earbuds were white. Many people tuck their devices into their pockets, which makes the headphones the most visible hardware. Apple exploited this and turned the earbuds into a mnemonic device. Spotting someone with white earbuds, even from afar, immediately told you which brand was on the other end.

The iPod now accounts for well over 70% of the audio-device market6. Why? I think it’s because the iPod is just more distinct than its competitors. In a market full of brunettes, the iPod is Marilyn Monroe.

Facebook vs. MySpace Link

Facebook has more than 500 million users, and that number is growing steadily. MySpace has plateaued at around 125 million7. How has MySpace, once the leading social network, fallen behind by such a large margin? There are a number of reasons, but design seems to be one of the most obvious (Newsweek and Mashable8 seem to think so, too).

Much to its detriment, MySpace allows users to apply their own style sheets. I can imagine the brainstorm that led to this decision: “Wouldn’t it be great to let users customize the look of their page? People love to make things their own and flaunt their personalities. This will surely encourage new users and give us the edge on Facebook. Hurrah!”

MySpace somehow failed to realize that most people’s design education consists entirely of WordArt tutorials taught by Microsoft’s Clippy. Perusing MySpace profiles is torturous. Hideous background images overshadow content, while animated GIFs and illegible text make for an irritating user experience.

Facebook realized that people want to connect with friends more than they want to customize style sheets, so it offered users a clean and uniform interface. Everything was nicely designed; nothing was gaudy or tasteless. The whole experience was much more visually appealing. While MySpace was pushing personalization, Facebook was refining a community to change the way we interact.

To Sum Up Link

  • People are programmed to judge by appearance, so every interaction they have needs to be groomed to visual perfection.
  • To maximize appeal, designers must be observant of the collective subjective.
  • Design is not superficial. It can be your greatest competitive advantage.
  • Visual distinction becomes a mnemonic device for your product. Incorporate it to increase awareness and encourage recall.
  • Allowing others to control your appearance, while nice in theory, can lead to chaos and brand deterioration.

Personality Link

As we get to know someone, the novelty of their appearance fades, and something more substantial is required to maintain our interest. We start looking beneath the surface and noticing abstract qualities: intelligence, sense of humor, likes and dislikes, ambitions. These qualities have the power to shape how we see the true person. A person’s personality — the DNA of their character — builds lasting appeal.

Character compatibility forms friendship and love. Looks alone might seal the deal for a one-night stand, but acceptance of personality is required for healthy long-term relationships. We’re often told to “be ourselves.” This is good advice. Like a pheromone-ridden glue trap, flaunting your personality attracts and ultimately bonds you with like-minded individuals.

Personality has this effect in the commercial realm as well. Aligning yourself with your target audience is critical to success. I’m sure this is excruciatingly obvious, and many organizations are already tuned into their demographics, but many others either are too shy to display personality or fail to do so properly.

Humor is one of personality’s strongest pheromones. If done right, humor evokes laughter. And yes, laughter is enjoyable in itself, but have you every wondered why we laugh? Anthropologists are discovering that laughing is not necessarily something we do merely for enjoyment, but is actually a subconscious technique that builds rapport. By laughing, we indicate to others that we agree with or accept them. Dr. Robert Provine, who has done extensive research on how, when and why we laugh, likens laughter to a glue:

…“Ha ha ha’s” are bits of social glue that bond relationships… When we laugh, we’re often communicating playful intent. So laughter has a bonding function9 within individuals in a group.

Applying a coat of humor to your product or advertising campaign is a great way to spark the subconscious urge to bond. Just make sure people are laughing with you, not at you10.

Going back to Apple, its “I’m a Mac; I’m a PC” ads focus explicitly on personality by actually personifying brands (Apple and Microsoft). The casual dress and easygoing nature of the Mac character exudes fun, simplicity and intelligence, especially when juxtaposed with the conservative, uptight PC character.

Also, the subtle dose of geek humor gets you laughing (and thus successfully bonding) with the Mac, and laughing at (disapproving of) the PC. These ads strengthened Apple’s reputation as a hip, intelligent, friendly company, while pegging Microsoft as uptight and out of touch with users’ needs.

Microsoft attempted to salvage its reputation by recruiting — or shall we say, throwing money at — Jerry Seinfeld, who starred in a series of ads alongside Bill Gates. For personality, Jerry Seinfeld is a great candidate. He’s famous, his show11 had some 75 million viewers, he understands everyday people with everyday problems, and he’s funny.

In a swing-and-miss attempt at comedy, the ads follow Bill and Jerry as they “connect” with “real” people. Is it me, or do these ads actually enhance the perception we have of Microsoft as unhip and out of touch?

Digg vs. Reddit Link

Have you seen the top story on Digg today? Neither have I. A year ago, I would have been able to recap all of the top stories for you. The website was powered by people like me, so I came to rely on Digg to keep me up to date on topics I was interested in. My personality meshed with those of other Digg users, and visiting the website became part of my daily routine. Yet I rarely visit this social-bookmarking website anymore. Instead, I look to Reddit for my democratically selected links.

What has changed? Ever since Digg released version 4, back in August, content quality has dropped significantly. Front-page stories lack relevance, top stories are now decided by far fewer Diggs, and the sponsored links disguised as genuine articles sour the whole experience.

Digg’s personality changed. It destroyed the very foundation upon which it was built. Suddenly, publishers could auto-submit content and bypass the users who once acted as a filter to determine whether articles were relevant to the Digg audience. No longer was Digg a democratic platform. The power shifted from user to publisher. In other words, Digg sold out.

This personality switch rightfully pissed off the core user base. Alienated users began flocking to… well, an alien. Some stayed to plead with Digg that it revert to its earlier version. Digg refused. In revolt, users began to submit direct links to Reddit. Within months, Digg crumbled and users flocked in hordes to Reddit.

Reddit offers a platform similar to Digg and, despite being owned by Condé Nast, lacks the tinge of corporate influence. Before Digg’s redesign, Reddit was serving a respectable 429 million page views per month. Condé Nast has just announced that Reddit now serves more than 1 billion12. That’s more than double its pre-Digg-blowout numbers and a 300% increase over its January 2010 figures. Digg has finally pulled some of the features that led to the mutiny, but it might be too little, too late13.

A valuable lesson can be learned from Digg: stay true to yourself. With followers come expectations. Personality attracted them, and every action that is out of character will push them away. Introduce advancements incrementally, and users might put up with it; change drastically, and they’ll leave.

To Sum Up Link

  • Personality builds rapport. Don’t be afraid to flaunt it.
  • Laughter is a powerful social glue, but use it with caution. You want people laughing with you, not at you.
  • Define your personality and stay true to it. Out-of-character actions will be seen as inauthentic and will alienate your audience.

Conclusion Link

Studying the art of seduction and the rules of relationships can help you craft engaging user experiences and forge strong connections with users. Getting your audience to fall in love with your product is no easy task. It requires a holistic approach involving members of every team. As interactive professionals, our work bridges brand and consumer. We are the cupids of commerce. Sharpen your arrows; it’s time to spread some love.

This has been the first in a two-part series on relationship engineering. In part two, we’ll explore the art of maintaining a relationship and how to trigger purchase recursion via timely break-ups. Stay tuned!

Further Reading Link


Footnotes Link

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Tom Giannattasio happily makes things at nclud. He works as an Editor for Smashing Magazine and teaches at Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts. He loves to experiment and share his work on his personal site: attasi.

  1. 1

    “MySpace somehow failed to realize that most people’s design education consists entirely of WordArt tutorials taught by Microsoft’s Clippy”

    hahahaha, best line ever :)

  2. 2

    I like this article and agree with the general conclusion that design is about relations. Yet, two points I do not fully agree with:

    – MySpace did not get passed by Facebook because of the ability to edit HTML. It was because of poor management decisions, a broken technical architecture and too much effort wasted on MySpace music. Many inside employees have put these reasons forward.

    – Digg was not a democracy before v4 either. No matter how good or relevant your article was, if you’re not one of the top 20 users, it will never reach the homepage and in 99% of the cases not make it above 1 Diggs. V4 made things worse, but Digg stopped being a democracy long before that.

    • 3

      Thomas Giannattasio

      April 8, 2011 2:18 pm

      You’re absolutely right. Design is not the only reason Facebook succeeded. However, it holds true that bad design can frustrate, annoy and ultimately destroy relationships. And yes, Digg hasn’t been a true democracy for quite some time now. Although, I’m not sure any democracy is ever FULLY a democracy. Good points though, Ferdy.

  3. 4

    What’s the font called that’s used in the examples?

  4. 6

    You forgot about the “love-hate” relationship and just the plain hate relationships. I guess that would go against what your saying though.

    Example: Apple’s products might be very nice, but the price and “closed Apple system” might turn a user away.

  5. 7

    Great article! Thanks for

  6. 8

    I would add a 4th kind of relationship:


    You don’t have an idea of the stranger, but the first impression is really important in determining how subsequent interactions work out.

  7. 9

    Don Elliott

    April 9, 2011 9:23 am

    Thank you for explaining the importance of ‘personality’ – in our company we regularly explain to our clients that true branding goes way beyond just the external aesthetics. You have to set the expectation for the experience so that users/customers are not disappointed when they finally jump the gap and engage your product or service.

    The movie ‘Burn After Reading’ suffered from this. In the previews they made it seem like a fast paced, goofy light hearted comedy. It was anything but that and even a little disturbing. As a result I was really disappointed in the movie, had I been prepped for a pseudo-dark comedy and been in the mood for that, I would have enjoyed it much more.

    Great insight and well written article, thank you!

  8. 10

    Alexei Rebrov

    April 9, 2011 10:45 am

    Bravo SM! more article like this! 5 Stars (out of 5)

  9. 11

    Best article of the month!

    Very nice to read!

  10. 12

    Nice article, agree with everyones opinion in general.

    But would like to point out (as a mac user of all sorts), what makes me return to a mac store and upgrade my products is basically two factors, aside from their good taste in design and appearance.

    1.- Good hardware and components. Lot’s of Pc’s crap out much sooner than mac laptops and cpus. Longer lasting, can take a beating etc…
    Excellent choice for demanding media artists.

    2.- Their excellent operative system. OS X is sturdy and reliable. Not like windows, the worst designed os in the world. One that accumulates trash of all sorts and you end up having to format it every couple of months. In that sense OS X and Linux are way beyond.

    About the price…you pay for what you get. A piece of hardware that looks nice, will last longer and an OS that wont give you headaches and make you loose valuable time, that could have been invested in other creative processes. So save up if price is an issue. I know i did.

    • 13

      wow… well, they do say love is blind. so true

    • 14

      What the last version of Windows you used, XP? Windows 7 does not need to be formatted every couple months and is extremely stable.

  11. 15

    Gaurav Mishra

    April 10, 2011 1:14 am

    Gimme HIGH FIVE!!!!!

  12. 16

    This article is like a breath of fresh air!

  13. 17

    Excellent model for explaining the relationships we have with brands. Well written, I enjoyed how you explained the link between laughter and building a relationship… It definitely a key factor.

  14. 18

    For the first time I came to MySpace to listen to some cool music, my first impression was «site with nice music and terrible design».

  15. 19

    I usually try not to be drawn on mac vs pc debates.

    At work I use MACs, at home I use PC. My current PC has never had repairs required, my current work MAC has been out of commission for about 2 months of its life (and that is WITH applecare).

    MACs do have technical issues, sometimes they happen without real reason, and there are aspects of the operating system that are complete garbage (like when permissions f-s up when you’re working with other designers on a network).

    Both are valid choices and have their pros and cons.

  16. 20

    Hi Thomas,

    Thank you for producing an article which supports what I have been saying in my company for years!! (it was also a really good read).

    I’m personally looking in depth at User Experience (UX) at the moment, and i think your article gives a great overview of the human emotional side which has been ignored for so long by the masses of designers and developers producing websites at the moment.

    I am looking forward to the second half of your article, your first part has given me some food for thought with regards to Social Relationship Engineering.

    I’m currently looking at Human Computer Interaction and Social Anthropology. So far I haven’t read anything about Dr. Robert Provine’s theory, so thank you again for adding this in.

    When is the second part due Thomas?

  17. 21

    The statements are accurate, but when was this first written?

    Your comparisons and examples are years ood!

    myspace vs facebook because of stylesheets?
    You haven’t been able to customise myspace for well over a year, and mac vs pc adverts?

    It’s worse than hearing the same speach at TED then every conference for the next 2yrs

  18. 22

    I am laughing :-)

  19. 23

    Ha. Nice article. A bit mad initially but it comes together with thought and sense. Well explained.

  20. 24

    Thomas Giannattasio

    April 11, 2011 5:28 am

    Hi Clare,

    I’m happy to help your crusade! I feel we’ve finally got a firm grasp on our technology, and the next step is to examine how that technology influences our decisions, our emotions and our lives.

    Part two is nearly complete. Stay tuned.

  21. 25

    Thomas Giannattasio

    April 11, 2011 5:34 am


    Yes, the examples are from the past. However, the goal was to utilize examples that a broad audience might be familiar with.

    Do you have some other examples we could discuss? I’d love to hear them!

  22. 26

    Janice Schwarz

    April 11, 2011 5:39 am

    Digg is slowing down in part because the lowest common denominator gets a vote, regardless of their expertise. I saw comments dug down because the people reading them clearly didn’t understand what the expert was saying, or even believe that the expert was correct. It’s mob mentality and very unpleasant to deal with. With the social experience there so frustrating, I left after a short time. I suspect I’m not alone. Your assessment of MySpace is why I, and many others I know, left that after a short time too. That and the inability they had to prevent spam. I never had that kind of problem from other online communities.

  23. 27

    Marcos Rocha

    April 11, 2011 7:25 am

    I really thought simply astounding! I’m totally agree about “the process of success of how to touch someone’s taste” (no matters its subject).

    Congratulations, there was rapport!

  24. 28

    John Flickinger

    April 11, 2011 7:34 am

    There are a lot of articles about the technical aspects of design, and it’s nice to see an article like this. I also enjoyed the humor, and since this is more about the emotional experience it fits well.

  25. 29

    Awesome article – very well written. Enjoyed your sense of humour and your perspective. Thanks!

  26. 30

    10 millions points for quoting Arrested Development. :D

  27. 31

    Old content in a new article. Be original.

  28. 32

    Maicon Sobczak

    April 12, 2011 3:13 am

    When you wrote “stay true to yourself” you pointed the principle of success. To change with the wind is dangerous and proved be harmful to any company. Of course stay tuned and adapt the strategy is primordial but never change too much the focus and the original idea.

  29. 33

    Tim Sutcliffe

    April 12, 2011 12:34 pm

    MySpace never intended for users to customize there own style sheet, it was a user hack that stuck. No brainstorm there I’m afraid. They did, however, understand that their primary market, young people and musicians, liked to be able to explicitly communicate their personality through design. Personality is OK – look at – it’s rad. IMHO MySpace’s problems was that the toolbox they gave users to customize their profile, unlike, almost always results in eye-melting, horrible designs.

  30. 34

    Very well described the basic points. Loved this article. Saved to Books & Shared on my FB Page too………..


  31. 35

    June Carter wrote the lyrics to Ring of Fire about her relationship with Johnny Cash. He didnt write them.

  32. 36

    Like the article. But I would say relationships go much deeper than that, all the way to childhood in fact. We choose our partners based on our first experiences as a baby of our primary carer. Therefore the relationships we make with products and services and much more unconscious and quite a way below rational choices (she looks nice, he is cool etc). The ability of any product or service branding to manipulate these unconscious triggers is the key to successful branding. Our base needs as consumers are for security and love. Get these right for your product and you are on to a winner. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but mostly not.


  33. 37

    Super article. Brilliant insight and great wording – thank you!

  34. 38

    Good article thanks.
    My perception of Apple’s approach is that they target elitism through introduction of culture. Steve Jobs often talks about culture.
    This “culture” is more like a cult of the elite/hip/in/trendy. The ideology off-course has been well backed-up/supported by exceptional products which constantly bring innovation and are madly focused on UX.

    But at the heart of the portrayal is a beckoning to come join the elite; the only one of it’s kind; that which separates you from all & sundry. Be part of the culture that is making a “dent in the universe” with their work !

  35. 39

    The article talks about interesting concepts, however I disagree that the harsh critic on Digg ‘selling-out’. That sounded very personal from my point of view, and I can understand your reasons if Digg was something as personal as a relationship to the writer.

    But, since your conclusion is ‘our work bridges brands and consumers’, can you really blame Digg for giving into brands that want to reach consumers?

  36. 40

    Great article

  37. 41

    I liked this article! thanks Tom

  38. 42

    Outstanding article and I couldn’t agree with you more.

  39. 43

    great article – just watched a great programme on tech brands. ( Not surprisingly, it covers Apple and how they build and maintain their brand and relationships with their customers. Interesting stuff and helps with understanding the near religious, almost irrational following brands like Apple have.


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