Design research method: The love letter and the breakup letter

Image by Jade

At a very basic level, brand-consumer relationships are kind of like the personal relationships we have with the people in our lives. There are people (and brands) we admire and respect, and enjoy having around, and others we detest, avoid, or don’t get along with for whatever reason. For the ones who deserve it, we reciprocate with our loyalty, friendship, time and resources. When a person or brand does us wrong, depending on what happened, we might seek to understand and forgive, or decide that it’s time to move on to someone or something new. There are also the relationships we maintain even when it’s not such a good idea, yet something keeps us coming back for more. It’s all quite complicated – not black and white by any means.

There’s a lot of rich information to explore in the realm of brand-consumer relationships, brand perception and brand loyalty that can help companies do a better job with the products and services they sell. One easy design research method for doing so is the “love letter”, and conversely, the “breakup letter”. This method was first developed in 2009 by Smart Design, a global innovation consulting firm (check out this video they put together about the technique).

Instead of directly asking people what they like or don’t like about a particular brand, product or service, this creative method can give insight into their perceptions by eliciting feelings of admiration, appreciation, frustration or aversion based on real-life experiences and interactions. In turn, researchers can draw upon the content, wording, tone and other aspects of the letter-as-artifact (e.g., body language when reading it) to determine how to more effectively design for better experiences around the moments that matter the most (i.e., the moments that cause someone to stay involved in a relationship or leave it). Ideally, they also provide insight into the core values (what brand guru Lynette Xanders of Wild Alchemy calls “magnetic virtues”) of a brand that facilitate the creation, sustainability or destruction of brand loyalty.

To provide a couple examples, I asked someone I know to write two letters, one to a brand he loves, and another to one he doesn’t love (anymore).

Love letter example:

Dearest Amazon,

I know we have been close friends for many years and we have had our ups and downs, but I have been thinking about you a lot and I think I am in love! Any time that I’m in need of anything, and I mean ANYTHING, I rely on you to give me a good idea what I should be paying and what my choices are. I have purchased many different electronics, sporting goods, and a multitude of other items from you- always knowing I can count on you for quick and low cost shipment. The reviews you have provided give me the security I need to know I am making a wise decision when I make a purchase. I have never trusted anyone else as much in that respect. When I see an email from you, especially when I have placed an order, I get this tingly feeling all over knowing that soon I will be receiving a gift from you. Your deliveries always arrive in great condition, so I know you care a lot about my feelings too! I know you love my family too, because I can send your gifts to all of them – even the gluten-free foods you provide for my father. There is no other business in the world that I would rather associate myself with. If I only had one choice for buying everything I require, you would be my choice, hands down! I owe you a lot in regards to my education also. You have provided most of my textbooks up to and including my doctoral studies, always right on time and up to date with the latest editions. If there is ever a problem with anything that I receive from you, you are always accommodating and quickly make it right. I don’t have any other company in my life that treats me with the honesty and respect that you do, so you can see why I am so attracted to you. I hope you feel the same about me!

Breakup letter example:

Dear Gander Mountain,

I am afraid our long term relationship must come to an end. Over the years I have loved the great deals and personal service you have given me, always putting me first. Your thoughtfulness has always been very dear to me; the free shipping, the competitive pricing, the wonderful selection, and the one-on-one care that is so important to me in my relationships. Lately, however, you haven’t been the same company I had grown to love. The communication that we had nurtured together is not present any longer. Now I must spend a lot more money to receive the gifts you had previously given me – free shipping on every order, no matter the price of the items. The rebate requirements are very hard to comprehend and I just can’t seem to fulfill your wishes in order to receive them. I have received items in error and you just brush me aside instead of showing the care you used to have for me and in satisfying my needs. I’m afraid this is the end. I don’t love you any more and I will be looking to start all over with a company that I feel will treat me with the care and respect that I deserve. Goodbye.

Most people have written letters like this before (to real people) or are at least familiar with the concept and format, so it’s a technique that is easy to understand, explain and complete in a short amount of time. Letters can be completed by participants before or during a research session; for online research, they can be emailed or saved to a shared space (e.g., a closed blog) for quick and easy access, or for import into qualitative analysis software.

The best part is using them as a stimulus in one-on-one conversations or group discussions to capture elaborated stories about the experiences, interactions and values referenced by participants. For example, for the love letter above, I would have asked the participant some follow-up questions about the “ups and downs” of his relationship with Amazon (and why he chose to forgive the company), and more about his desire for trust, security, honesty and respect when shopping online.

Reference: Universal Methods of Design by Bella Martin and Bruce Hanington (2012)

5 thoughts on “Design research method: The love letter and the breakup letter

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