As products become smarter, designers need to learn how to build products that forge not only functional trust but emotional trust. Businesses like Amazon have unleashed devices such as voice assistants that are exciting people with their potential but also scaring people. This duality of inspiration and fear is evident in a recently published article, from Tristan Greene in The Next Web, “Amazon’s roadmap for Alexa is scarier than anything Facebook or Twitter is doing.” As he writes bluntly, “The idea of Alexa being an omnipresent companion looking to orchestrate your life should probably alarm you.” Jumping into a stranger’s car or sleeping on a stranger’s bed during vacation, may have seemed unnerving a few years back, but imagine intelligent products summoning you with information in 2021.

In part one of my perspective on this topic, “Why Designing Intelligent Products Requires Designing for Relationships,” I distinguished between emotional trust and functional trust and gave an example of how to design for emotional trust through a voice-based learning experience. To wit: we allow Alexa to tell us about the weather, which requires functional trust. But allowing Alexa to help educate our children requires emotional trust. Today’s post discusses why it’s necessary to re-assess design thinking in the era of smart products. If we can crack the code for building emotional trust, we’ll create products that build relationships through repeatability, dependability, and relatability.

Design Thinking Needs to Evolve

Popular design approaches such as design thinking are capable of developing emotional trust if we harness its value a bit differently.

The core of design thinking is creating products that remove friction and addresses real user needs. But because minimum lovable intelligent products will enter the most intimate spaces of our lives, design thinking must accomplish more. Instead of beginning with a problem statement, we also create a value statement. We map business and user values side-by-side to determine the type of relationship we want to create. We review those high values and think about the list of features that pays off lovable. Evaluating the two side-by-side gives us the inputs we need to see a relationship model emerge. We think about where the relationship builds, peaks, and strengths across the user journey, and focus on relatability over usability, and utility over beauty in cases where the experience is screen-less. Knowing this changes the trajectory of how the MLP is thought about, designed, communicated, built, and eventually marketed.

Designing for emotional trust means we need to design for evolutionary experiences not just streamlined ones from our screen-based days. Digital products are getting smarter over time and with more engagement and that is why it is important we think about the relationship between the user and product and how it grows, strengthens, or even diminishes over time.

Designing for Relationships

Designing for emotional trust is about defining the product/user relationship. It’s not just about “What is the problem and how can we solve it?” It’s about “What relationship will pay off the few features and user values the strongest? Motherly? Coach? Maybe a best friend who knows everything about me and delivers some tough love? Determining the product/user relationship and mapping it at the outset of discovery paves the way for the research, user experience, product design, product management, and development efforts that follow.r

Our Relationship Canvas in action

To design for relationships requires looking at three parts that fortify a user’s relationship with intelligent digital products. Those three parts are Data, Communication, and User Preference. At Moonshot we look at the convergence of these three facets to determine the relationship we will design for.

1. Data

People must be willing to give information in order to get dependability. You have to give personal data to Google for Google Maps to be dependable. Looking at the relationship we defined, we leverage that dichotomy to design interesting and novel ways to gather information in a lovable fashion that isn’t all upfront or intrusive. And designers, product managers, and even engineers need to understand how we are using data. What data are we collecting? What are we doing with it? How do we present it? What does the business do with it to make decisions? Often we design for the front end, but we need to design for the back-end use of that data.

As we have witnessed and learned from the pitfalls of functional trust, designers need to be cognizant that experiential value comes from the connection of disparate data points that are not connected today. Data is about the science that can be built behind the scenes to power a very connected experience using voice or AI and the artistry behind the presentation of the data visualization. These two aspects of data science are critical to reinforce the relationship we seek to create between the user and a product. Ultimately, deriving new insights and connections of information using user-inputted, generated, or usage data drives decision making, paving the way for the experience to have:

  • Repeatability – if the user understands that they are gaining value through the presentation of new connections, information, or knowledge, they will come back to engage with you.
  • Dependability – relying on the data to drive additional processes or routine before, during or after the experience
  • Relatability – presenting the data in a manner that continuously builds emotional trust so that the relationship can form in the manner it was designed (e.g., best friend or coach).

We can see intelligent use of data through experiences with Netflix and its robust recommendation engine; Stitch Fix and its use of data science to profile customers’ interests in order to drive repeat purchases; and Spotify through its ability to help customers discover new music by chronicling their current music tastes. (These are but three popular examples of many.)

2. Communication

Trust and communication are fundamental to establishing closeness. A lack of transparency in communication is behind consumer being upset about voice assistants overhearing our conversations. We don’t like it when people keep secrets from us. Neither do we like it when machines do. Transparency in communication means the technology company being more clear about the fact that voice assistants can overhear conversations, why they do it, and how customers can disable the functionality.

Communication is also about the right tone. There’s a reason why the internet is celebrating the launch of a new Alexa skill that uses the voice of actor Samuel L. Jackson. His is a familiar voice. And we like the tone of his voice – cool when it needs to be and emotional when it has to be. We’ll take Samuel L. Jackson over a robotic voice because of his humanity.

When we designed the Guardians of History voice-based learning experience (which I cited in my first blog post in this two-part series), we paid special attention to tone. We were asking parents and kids to trust a voice assistant to deliver a fun experience and a learning one at the same time. We needed to design voice-over with an encouraging, warm tone to keep kids engaged – to earn their trust.

Creating intelligent product experiences hinges on our ability to design the communication in a manner that supports the presentation of the “new information (data)” and reinforces the relationship that is being designed for. When we communicate effectively, we facilitate the experience through:

  • Repeatability – Effective communication creates a great experience. A great experience invites the user back.
  • Dependability – If the relationship between the person and the voice assistant is one of coach, the design team needs to design with the right tone in mind. The communication could take on one of a tough love tone to drive motivation or a more calm approach to illicit retrospection and hits on the theoretical mind to drive behavior change.
  • Relatability – The user has to relate to the tone of the experience. Otherwise product may not be adopted. The communication approach that will foster dependability has to be appreciated and loved by the user. When done well, the communication approach and execution will also drive the brand and its perceived value.

Today, we can see great communication approaches take place within apps like Headspace and Woebot. Headspace uses a tone that reinforces its brand and experience. The approach is one of calm tone that is aligned with the recommended exercises and toolset that makes up their value proposition. Woebot takes a relationship-first approach to their experience. Through their tone and presentation, their choice was to treat and market themselves as a friend/therapist. This manifests itself across the experience to the point to start to build a fondness for the experience as if you would your own therapist/friend through intentional conversations and even pauses throughout the conversation.   

3. User Preference

User preference is different than user experience. User preference means what kind of relationship the person wants to have with the machine. As I noted earlier, do you want the interface to be like that of a coach? A nurturing mom? An AI-fueled workout app may need to kick your butt to earn your trust. Not so with a game for kids.

The role of user and ethnographic research is necessary to sus out what level of relationship is appropriate within a given population. While working on Guardians of History, we spent a lot of time with 8-12 years to understand what engages them, but also how they like to be talked to. While we are there to build a product, we know that we are also seeking to understand what relationship we need to design for to achieve the adoption levels we set forth to accomplish. During this effort, understanding other experiences kids used and how they conversed with their parents was insightful in determining the preferred relationship with a learning experience.

  • Repeatability – Intelligent product experiences depend on repeat use to be smarter and valuable to the user. It is critical we establish the right relationship because it drives that usage required for the product to evolve over time.
  • Dependability – Intelligent products inherently will be based on user preferences, delivering relevant and meaningful information and interactions consistently over time
  • Relatability – An intelligent has to be relatable for it to be used. Otherwise the experience remains superficial just like an acquaintance you just met once but likely never see again.

What Should You Do Next?

Take a medium to long-term relationship perspective, not a short-term transactional focus when discovering, designing, and developing your MLP. This perspective fosters an evolutionary mindset when managing the MLP. A short-term focus just perpetuates our current world of streamlining experiences to be faster for some monetary gain. Focusing on relationships nurtures and ultimately generates more transactions. The opposite is not true — in fact, a focus on transactions chokes off relationships. Ultimately, the most profitable relationships are those where multiple transactions are assumed, and the goal is building long-term success for everyone involved. Many parallels can be made when you reflect on your strongest human relationships. What keeps you coming back? Design for it.

In this context, design thinking matters very much. It’s just that you need to involve the user in a different way: to figure out not what to accomplish a goal, but what kind of relationship you want to build. At Moonshot, we are constantly watching the evolution of design and adapting as needed. Contact Moonshot to learn more about our MLP workshop and how to bring designing for relationships to your product development process.

Amish Desai

Amish Desai

Head of Experiences