Ever felt so irritated by a product—an unreliable stud finder, say, or the slim pickings on Netflix Instant—you felt compelled to write it an impassioned breakup letter? At a recent design strategy session, employees here at Altitude did precisely that. With senior strategist Mariah Levitt at the helm, six of us were asked to choose a once-cherished product that now frustrates us. We dished about our annoyances with a partner for five minutes, and then we were told to imagine we'd been in a romantic relationship with it and needed to break things off. We got 10 minutes to pen breakup letters.
The exercise wasn’t just catharsis. It was intended to help us better empathize with consumers. The aspect of human nature embodied by the adage that people say one thing and do another can make it difficult for designers to truly capture consumers’ intentions, motivations, and values. So designers borrow cognitive psychology techniques that encourage people to create something as a means of explaining their tacit knowledge, latent needs, emotions, dreams, and motivations.
One of those techniques, the Breakup Letter, was developed by our fellow colleagues at Smart Design. Reframing one's relationship to a product as something romantic gives the user permission to exaggerate his or her biggest frustrations and wishes. That, in turn, can help designers understand the emotional connection between people and their products, services, and experiences.
The tool did its job, eliciting raw emotions reminiscent of the "don’t call me, I’ll call you" variety. Turns out that breaking up, even with GladWare, a blender, and other products and services that made promises they didn’t deliver on, is hard to do, no matter who (or what!) you’re cutting off. But it's important work, and it can go a long way toward helping create a product that meets the consumers' ideal—and maybe even makes them fall in love.
Dear Stud Finder,
Relationships are based on trust, and I no longer trust you. Every time I ask you the same question I get different answers. And I’ve caught you red-handed in outright lies. I’m afraid one of these days you’ll trick me into drilling into a high-voltage cable. Are you really any better than living by pure chance? I don’t think so.
Good luck searching,
Dear GladWare containers,
It’s just too much. I was looking for something simple and uncomplicated. At first, everything seemed great—clean, simple, easy. Best of all, you were cheap. Exactly what I was looking for.
But… first impressions can be deceiving. You’re not simple. You’re really hard. You have trouble keeping your lid on in stressful moments. What I thought was a good fit—isn’t. It’s not me—it’s you. You never fit! Worst of all you won’t go quietly into that dark cabinet, always refusing to be neatly categorized and stacked. Over time, I’ve realized your cheapness has meant you’re unclean.
I am ending this relationship, now. When you were flirting with me in the Staples showroom you promised me a carefree and easy life. No drivers to download, no CDs to install, no futzing with finding the neighbors’ WiFi by accident. You bought me drinks, made me take you home, and now my life is a mess. After many hours wasted trying to get PDFs to transfer to my Mac and Word docs to print, sadly I have had enough. I am returning you to Staples and will try to find a new printing partner.
Why do you think I want to watch Toddlers and Tiaras? I thought after all this time together, you would know me but you don’t get me at all. I have wasted too much time browsing your mediocre offerings, and I’m done. It’s not me, it’s you. You just don’t see me. I don’t have time to wait around for you to get upgraded—my digital clock is ticking. Don’t show up in my mailbox or Xbox again. You’re the worst.
P.S. I’ve been cheating on you with Amazon Instant Video. And PBS.com.
Blender oh Blender,
I just can’t take the betrayal anymore. There is so much promise when I think that the blend is going to be perfect. You never give me a clue though that I have gone too far, given too much. You then proceed without warning to spray hot soup all over my kitchen, my person, my emotions. I just can’t take the uncertainty anymore. One day a perfect smoothie, the next a face full of pureed lentils scalding me and scarring me for life. I am sure that there is someone out there with a better measure of your capacity but it is not me. I’m sure it’s me and not you, but I am going to have to leave you at Goodwill.
Dear Apple headphones,
We have been in this together for a year now, and I can’t say we haven’t shared some great memories on the subway and thousands of miles in the air. But I just can’t keep doing this. You are unreliable and temperamental and a really hard guy to pin down. Every time I want to share a long walk with you, you act squirmy and distant. Apple was playing matchmaker when they first introduced us. They knew I loved music, and that we would be a great match. Because of you music isn’t the same… but without you there is none. Even though this is going to be very hard, I think it’s best we go our separate ways. Thanks for all the good tunes!
P.S. Do you have other friends I can meet?