Let’s talk about Relationship Design

In 2016 I made a prediction in a talk about trends and the future of technology and marketing:

Me, in 2016, in front of a lot of agency people

My thinking was this: Let’s assume every thing is digital and smart, down to the most mundane one. What happens then?

The case for Relationship Design

Humans are very good at humanizing things. If you have a thing with digital capabilities, connected, which senses its environment and context, and is able to interact with other things and humans, it becomes very easy to relate to it. After all it can sense what is going on around it. It can react to you. It can engage with you. It can address you when it needs to.

There is another aspect to this: Humans are pattern matchers. As explained, our brain instinctively processes input and reacts to some of it without consulting the conscious processing first. Way back in prehistoric times this instinct saved our lives when we had to differentiate quickly between “Can I hunt this?” and “Will this hunt me?”. Today we experience this for example as “first impression bias”, sorting people we meet and talk to into stereotypic templates based on our experiences and backgrounds.

This is where strange things are happening when a digitally enhanced reality interacts with us in a sensible, conversational way. Language is our main way of communication. If something else “talks” to us, we automatically try to humanize (anthropomorphize) it. Language is enough to trigger our instinct, our bias and our expectation. Based on the assumption that we will have the ability to see and interact with digital entities and assume that physical objects also represent digital entities, we as humans instinctively want to give those entities a personality. We as humans are wired to anthropomorphize vaguely intelligent entities, we do it with living things like puppies and cats, but also with objects like dolls or cars.

One example of this is Fridgezoo, small objects shaped like milk cartons, designed as cartoon animals, that live in your refrigerator. When you open your fridge, they greet you. If you leave the door open for a while, they will ask you to close it again to save energy.

Even if they do not have any capabilities to further engage in conversation, people start talking to them. They tell them about their day and what’s on their mind. Essentially the “thing” became a “somebody” because the way they were designed.

And then, there is Jibo:

If you want to know more, there is an amazing episode of (the always amazing) “Why’d You Push That Button?” podcast: They welcomed a robot into their family, now they’re mourning its death, The story of Jibo.

So as more and more things in our reality become digital, we will lean towards interacting with them in a social way, either engage and broker social contacts through them or even include them into our social circle. We don’t like JARVIS in the Iron Man movies because of what Tony Stark can do with it, but because it has this practical, yet edgy character. We don’t relate to Data in Star Trek because of its usefulness to the crew, but because its personality, turning the “it” into a plausible “he”. And compare that to “the Terminator” where Arnold Schwarzenegger as T-800 definitely had a personality.

The assumption is: We will expect every digitally augmented thing to have a personality or at least to be brokered by one.

To illustrate this point, please ask yourself if you expect the self driving Audi A6 to behave differently than the self driving Ferrari FF. And if so, how?

At this point, let’s not have the discussion if Ferrari will produce a self-driving car (of course they will), but focus on the obvious: The Ferrari FF has different properties and capabilities than the A6. This matters a lot, as most researchers in AI now agree that intelligence and embodiment are tightly coupled issues. This just means: Your physical properties and capabilities define how you act in this world and while these digital things might not be really intelligent, we expect them to be. We will project a certain expectation together with the notion of dealing with a personality. So these personalities will need to emulate behavior within sensible parameters representative of their capabilities.

If your interface is a personality, then the user experience is a relationship. So those parameters have to be carefully designed to not alienate users as well as to promote and foster actual relationships. In this case alienate means that the personality (= interface) behaves differently than expected (= is an anti-pattern).

And here we are. This is why Relationship Design will be the next big thing in digital and beyond.

Applied Relationship Design

Relationship Design is the profession of crafting and orchestrating digital aspects of our lives into meaningful and personalized experiences.

Relationship designers deal with individual touchpoints (physical, digital or mixed), shape their behavior and personalities on a micro level to make them approachable and relatable.

Further, they act on the macro level and make sure that individual touchpoints fit into an overall coherent and pleasant experience. In a theme park this would be comparable to rides (micro) and the park itself (macro). From Microinteractions to Moments and Micromoments

Since the real world is much more dynamic, interactions with objects and digital layers might not have a clear cut context.

As a result the paradigm of user experience design changes from “Create a UX for a given context” to “Set the context for a UX to happen”.

Relationship Designers need to be knowledgeable about human centered design and user expectations, but also social group dynamics, personal 1:1 interaction, making users feel comfortable and at-ease while providing a feeling of excitement and carefully crafted entertainment. Simply put:

Relationship Designer = UX Designer + Community Manager + Escort Service + Movie Director.

They are the gatekeepers that keep out the “Geocities of things”. They make sure that if digital (infused) things become friends, not annoyances. They make sure that the digital future is centered around humans and relatable to us instead of disconnecting us. They will truly shape our surroundings, our environment, our world and reclaim the physical space, making our interactions with the world a magical experience.

Based on the assumption that we will have the ability to see and interact with digital entities and assume that physical objects also represent digital entities, we as humans instinctively want to give those entities a personality. We as humans are wired to anthropomorphize vaguely intelligent entities, we do it with living things like puppies and cats, but also with objects like dolls or cars. And for that we need better ways of making “things” relatable and trigger those instincts.

Hence Relationship Design will be the future profession to orchestrate individual digital aspects of physical experiences.

Living in Berlin / Germany, working at Microsoft, loving technology, society, good food, well designed games and this world in general. Views are mine, k?