I’m sorry to say, skinny Moleskines, but I’m breaking up with you.
Have you ever broken up with someone? I’ll bet it was painful. Hidden secrets come pouring out; hurtful words are exchanged. And yet, for the first time in a long time, it feels good to be totally, brutally honest.
We relate to technology just as we relate to people: with our emotions . And just as our relationships with people rise and fall, so do our relationships with technology. We develop emotional attachments to our technology products, invest mental energy into them, and sometimes, for reasons within or beyond ourselves, we decide to move on.
But this moving on represents a loss for designers, consumers, and society at large. The population and its consumption of technology are only going to increase, with all of the environmental and other impacts those increases entail. At the same time, as utility and ease of use become standard features of all products, consumers are beginning to seek an emotional connection with technology. These two developments are complementary. Designers are challenged to create products that last. And designing for emotional attachment is one way to do that.
Consumers who feel strong emotional attachment to their products are more likely to repair, rather than replace, their broken items. This attachment is based on factors such as the product’s utility, market value, and reliability, as well as aspects such as its support of the user’s identity and its ability to allow control, symbolize goals, activate enjoyment, and trigger memories. An understanding of attachment gives designers a strong springboard for creating new technologies with increased functionality, usability, and lifespan.
In order to design for attachment, we first have to understand the emotional relationships that create it. Many research methods exist today for understanding product attachment; however, each has its drawbacks. For example, interviews and surveys teach us about product attachment to existing technologies but provide little context to inspire the design of new technologies. Research through designobserving people in situ with working prototypesis a useful method for understanding attachment to a context and designing new technologies for that context. However, building prototypes requires prototyping capability, which is not always feasible in the early stages of the design process. And while role playing reveals ways in which future interactions can be designed, this tool brings out emotions that are imagined and based on future plans rather than real experiences.
All of these methods ultimately share the most critical drawback: People aren’t necessarily expressing their emotions toward the technology they actually use. The methods ask participants to reflect in a calm and controlled manner, possibly preventing them from expressing their true emotions. And so, for my team and the design research community at large, the challenge remained: What would prompt consumers to express their true feelings about products they have loved and lost?
Eliciting Emotion Through Writing
Writers have been doing this for years: It’s called the love letter. Or the hate letter. Either way, a simple letter format can help people express strong emotions they might not have been able to articulate in a survey or interview. For example, McSweeney’s asked its readers to write open letters to “entities unlikely to respond” . Many of these were consumer products or services the readers had used that had eventually disappointed them. The letters followed a traditional format: a personal greeting, a statement about the relationship, defense of that main point throughout the letter, and, finally, the new terms of the relationship. People communicated strong emotions, described the context of the relationship in detail, and, ultimately, in many cases, chose to formally end things.
Many letters spoke of attachment, and even love, with products as trivial as the Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme:
“I had no idea how deeply I had fallen for you until the terrible day came when you were no longer available. I stood in line, waiting patiently for you like I’d always done. But when I said your name, the cashier responded, callously, “Limited-time item, sorry.” My eyes burned like fire sauce as I fought to keep back tears. I didn’t even have time to say goodbye! ... Darling, I missed you, and I promise I will never take you for granted again. Please don’t ever leave me. I’m nothing without you.”
But even though love letters revealed extreme emotions, the strongest feelings were expressed in hate letters. In a letter to his Sonicare electric toothbrush, a writer begins,
“Dear Sonicare electric toothbrush, I admit, I was always skeptical of your much-heralded tooth-cleansing prowess.”
He continues with complaints about the product’s defects, and ends with a reduction in its status:
“You and your $10 replacement brushes are hereby demoted to electric grout scrubber.”
Just as people talk to each other with strong emotion, this writing exercise suggests that people can address their technologies with the same strength and clarity. In a letter to Facebook, a reader shares her frustration with the service’s constant suggestions to friend people when she writes,
“Cease your incessant suggestions and leave me to wallow, lonely and in peace.”
And this descriptive language gets stronger still. In a letter to his cubicle, a writer gets angry at himself while interrogating his workspace. He writes,
“If I hate you so much, why do I spend the waking hours of my prime locked in this terrible relationship?”
This writer has literally begun an impassioned two-way conversation with his cubicle, an entity that is unlikely to respond.
Reaching a Wider Audience
Because most writers know how to express their feelings through letters, the format works for revealing sources of product attachment and detachment. However, can anyone write a letter to a technology with the same ease and articulation? Design consultancies such as Smart Design  have started to explore this approach, by asking people to write and recite “breakup letters” to products and services in a workshop. The designers hoped to understand the emotional connection between people and products, and the resulting letters did just that. By using humor and product personification, these spoken letterslike the written onesrevealed major insights about potential product or service improvements.
In a Smart Design workshop, people composed letters to a variety of services, such as Starbucks, and products, such as single-cup coffee makers. Participants read the letters out loud to other workshop members. This recent and effective work suggests that a wide range of people are capable of writing emotionally expressive letters, and that such letters can indeed contain a slew of details useful for design.
However, there is still room for improvement. We know from Media Richness Theory  that personal, face-to-face communication is generally better for expressing emotional issues than leaner, less-rich media such as writing. Richer communication reveals even more detail about emotion and product attachment. And so, in an effort to use rich communication to understand product attachment, we have created a new method called Tech Break Ups. In it, participants improvise breakups with an ex-technology, speaking directly to their former product or service as if it were a person.
Research context. The method was part of a study to understand people’s relationships to technologies that enable creative work. We were seeking the specific reasons and moments for change in these relationships. There is a strong connection between creativity and emotion, and so people often have strong feelings about tools that support their creative work. Plus, despite the proliferation of tools for creative work, few researchers have taken a product-attachment approach in their design. New opportunities seemed inevitable, if the Tech Break Ups method was orchestrated well.
Breaking up is hard to do? As it turns out, breaking up wasn’t hard at all. Sixteen design professionals and students were asked if they wanted to participate in a study about attachment to technologies that support creative work. All but one agreed. They were asked to come up with a technology (digital or non-digital) they were no longer using, and to think about this technology as if it were a person with whom they had effectively broken up. After taking a minute to gather their thoughts, they sat in a chair facing a video camera. The camera, placed three feet away at typical person-to-person distance, was meant to symbolize the technology. They were told to begin speaking to the camera as if it were the technology whenever they were ready. This took only between five and 30 seconds.
To keep participants focused on the key moments in the relationship, we told them there would be a time limit of three minutes. In reality, they had as much time as they needed, which ended up being between 30 seconds and four minutes. After the participants finished, we asked them about the experience of preparing for and performing the breakup. Many found it both enjoyable and satisfying, even though the stories they recalled were often bitterly nostalgic.
An emotional roller coaster. Even without instruction, most participants’ stories followed a similar format: how the relationship started, grew, and ended. Just like the honeymoon period of a romantic relationship, the beginning was often full of “great moments.” A design professional explained to her logbook,
“When we first got together during grad school, I loved spending time with you. I carefully decorated your outside cover with interesting-looking magazine clippings, and lovingly doodled in your margins. I was new to the concept of formalized creativity training, and flush with the promise that something innovative could be born from your blank, white, lineless pages.”
However, this initial bliss was soon replaced with a more sobering recognition of personal change. The same professional continued,
“Looking back, it’s obvious that much of the time I spent with you was wasted. I assumed that the more time I spent sketching and doodling, the more interesting my ideas would become. I didn’t yet realize that interacting and collaborating with other humans would get me further than holing myself up in my loft space with you. You became an unhealthy obsession for me.”
Last came the decline, often accompanied by disappointment, accusations, and even ultimatums. The same professional concluded,
“After school, I dropped you, hard. I guess it was burnout. I’ve never really gone back, though someday maybe I will. Don’t get me wrongI think you and I can still have a good thing. Just don’t expect my undivided love and attention.”
A compelling performance. Without coaching, many participants acted with a great deal of verbal and visual drama, including sighs, gestures, and downward glances. They often addressed the technology by name, particularly at critical points in the relationship:
“Blog, when we first met ... you were always there for me.”
Acting lessons were not required for participants to get fully into character. One design student looked up, as if recalling his Lego moments with fondness, and said, “I built giant structures with youmazes, cars ... ” before concluding with a longing sigh. Another designer became agitated and said with a raised voice and pointed finger, “You are too overpowerful! You are too overbearing!”
Finally, participants appeared genuinely humbled and embarrassed as they admitted to cheating. While looking down, a professional confessed in a quiet voice, “Facebook has kind of replaced you.”
Both verbal and visual cues of emotional attachment led us to believe the feelings being expressed were genuine and heartfelt.
Insights for Designers: Why People Leave Products
So what does this teach us about detachment? We found three key reasons why relationships with products collapse, and each has to do with personal change: changes in self-identity, creative process, and creative ability. Each of these changes is inevitable, and typically positive, in creative professionals. A new goal for designers is to create technologies that both anticipate and respond to these personal changes.
Changing self-identity. People leave products when their identity changes because they see technology as an extension of themselves. A design student said that back when he was “analytical,” using grid paper worked great, but as his creative identity strengthened, the grid paper began to hold him back. Now, he said, “I want to be intuitive. I want to be creative.”
When people are forming their professional identities, relationships with creative tools are most at risk. Designers should consider the ways in which their products are introduced during times of career transformation.
Changing creative process. People leave products when they change their creative processeverything from working more in teams, to expecting more from themselves, to moving away from commercial work. For example, a design student increased his performance standards after a summer internship. He complained to his Post-it notes, “I think quality matters. I’m no longer satisfied with one-liners.”
He felt that the Post-its actually kept him from achieving his new standard of success. This supports the idea that goals diverge, and therefore people and products lose alignment. Designers should consider how to keep their products’ goals in line with their users’ goals. For example, designers of open source technologies might consider how commercializing their products could change users’ attachment.
Changing ability. People leave products when their abilities change but the products’ capacities remain the same. A design student says that he no longer plays around with children’s building blocks because he is able and ready to “design real things now.”
When building new tools for creative work, designers should consider how technologies can be changed or upgraded to meet users’ changing abilities.
Insights for Researchers: Why Breakups Work
As part of our larger study on creative tools, Tech Break Ups taught us much about how people attach and detach from their technologies, leading to important implications for the next generation of designers. Dramatic performances were based on actual relationships, grounding the data in reality, not imagination. Furthermore, the short duration of the activity helped participants focus on the most meaningful moments and salient factors in the relationship, boosting the quality and efficiency of data gathered. Finally, Tech Break Ups generated the strong, raw emotion lacking in other attachment research methods.
And Tech Break Ups has benefits for both researchers and participants. It is relatively fast and easy to administer. The format is familiar for most participants, requiring little preparation. Low expectations mean low commitment, no formal incentives, and easy recruiting. Perhaps best of all, the informants all described how satisfying the experience waseven “cathartic.” One shared this reflection: “I didn’t realize how attached I still was. What a relief to formalize the breakup.”
Participants even began to think about other products and services they had “ditched” in the past. This helped them see the transitory nature of their relationship with technologywhich may perhaps lead them to become more responsible consumers down the road.
The findings reinforce the way in which we conceive of technology as part of the self. And yet, as the self changes, so must the technologies that help to define it.
I am grateful to my colleagues and peers in the design community for their contributions to this research, whether through example or critique. Specifically, I am grateful to Caitlin Martin Kennedy, Sara Cantor Aye, Nick Switanek, and Ron Wakkary for their helpful insights. This research was originally published in the Proceedings of the 8th ACM Conference on Creativity and Cognition, 2011, in Atlanta.
4. Daft, R.L. and Lengel, R.H. Information richness: A new approach to managerial behavior and organizational design. In Research in Organizational Behavior. L.L. Cummings and B.M. Staw, eds. JAI Press, Homewood, IL, 1984, 191233.
Elizabeth M. Gerber is an assistant professor in the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University. Her research interests include human-centered design and innovation, crowdsourcing, and crowdfunding. She has an M.S. in product design and and a Ph.D. in management science and engineering from Stanford University.
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