Developing User Intimacy

“You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” — Kahlil Gibran

It can be intensely stressful to be unable to trust the people that we interact with on a daily basis. Studies have shown that self-concealment (needing to conceal personal information from others) is often associated with increased levels of anxiety and depression.

This is why it feels slimy and gross when our interactions with big faceless services like Facebook or Google involve providing intimate personal information. Intimacy means a lot of things to a lot of people. It can refer to close or warm friendship or understanding within a personal relationship. It can refer to a close association with or detailed knowledge/understanding of a place, subject, period of history, etc. Or it can refer to NSFW adult activity. But all of these definitions have this in common: they each refer to some aspect of familiarity between things; a deep shared understanding that is not necessarily shared with others. Something private. Something personal. This is what user intimacy means. Having enough trust to share. How annoying is it when a website offers you a free trial but requires your credit card details? Can we really trust Facebook and Google? And more importantly, is trust really that necessary if we’re going to keep using the service regardless?

I say it is necessary. I say that by developing transparency and user intimacy we can move people from reluctantly telling us what we need to know to a place of cooperation and harmony; a place where they will happily share their personal info with us because they know exactly why we need it and that we won’t abuse their trust.

Let’s take a quick look at some points from a tacky advice website that gives us a truly illuminating 10 Steps To A More Intimate Relationship. I’m going to cut and paraphrase a lot of it and change the order to make it a bit more meaningful, but here are some key insights that needed to be teased out:

(NB: I’ve replaced the word “partner” with “user”)

1. Be spiritual together, & 5. Be emotionally available

Here’s the first little high-level tidbit: On its own, a shared life philosophy can help build a connection to something greater. I’m not suggesting that we track which religion our users are affiliated with and pretend to share that with them. What I’m talking about is more general than that. Why are our users with us? Why have they chosen our service? What is the life philosophy behind their actions, and how does it compare to the life philosophy behind our actions?

When you aren’t emotionally available to your user, you’re withholding the intimate details of your life: the very opposite of what you should be doing to build a more intimate connection. What comes along with that is a decreased feeling of appreciation and value — that specialness that comes along with an intimate relationship … Sharing the feelings and dreams that are unique to you shows your vulnerability as well as how much you trust your user to accept the real you.

2. Pay attention

User intimacy begins with listening to what he or she is saying and paying attention to his or her actions. This ties nicely into the field of data-driven contextualisation and relevant experience design. If you haven’t heard of either of these before:

Relevant user experience is defined as:

1) meeting a user’s content, functional, and emotional needs;

2) delivering content and function based on both explicit and implicit feedback about user needs and preferences in order to feel personalised; and

3) delivering in the moment on situational needs, such as those linked to time and location.

Contextualisation refers to tailored, adaptive, and sometimes predictive relevant experience by combining a user’s existing profile data (who they are) and historical data embodied by a journey map (where they’ve been) with in-the-moment situational details (when and where they are at this point on the journey map).

Contextual experiences must feel natural and unforced, and should go largely unrecognised by the user. They should utilise all information provided from listening and watching the user both actively and passively to provide a predictive (but not invasive) experience.

3. Accept unconditionally

It’s easy to get into a relationship with the idea that you’ll be able to encourage your user to change — just a little — to be closer to your ideal. But that idea isn’t usually realistic or very fair to you or your user. On top of that, the little projects you have in mind, like getting your user to get a haircut, become a fan of your favorite band or stop wearing those awful shirts, are an obstacle to intimacy.

Isn’t that nice? How often do we expect users to make up for a lack of effort or understanding on our behalf? How often do we feed them a design instead of co-creating a solution alongside them?

4. Be supportive

In a 5-year study, researchers at the University of Iowa found that newlyweds describe four different types of support, what they’ve labeled:

  • Physical and emotional support: Sharing and listening as well as hand holding and hugging
  • Esteem: Offering self-esteem boosts and confidence
  • Informational: General advice-giving
  • Tangible: Helping with additional responsibilities or problem solving

The trick is to supply the right kind and level of support as needed — and to watch out for too much informational support. No one likes to feel they’re being told what to do. Everyone has a different idea of the perfect amount — and type — of support. So, be sure to let your user know what type and how much fits your bill — and listen to what he or she tells you about the support you provide.

Maybe physical support like hand holding and hugging are out of scope for now and we can save them for when we have more bandwidth, but giving advice, offering esteem boosts and helping users with their problems are integral to developing trust and intimacy. Not cookie-cutter help that covers a wide range of users, but personalised and tailored help.

5. Laugh together

Laugh! With your users! Hahahaha! Just like this!

Laughter is contagious, and when we hear it, our brain automatically wants to get in on the action. According to multiple studies, including studies at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, we naturally mimic the gestures and facial expressions of those we talk to, a trait that is now also thought to include laughing. We laugh when we hear a funny joke, when we play, when we’re tickled …

No bandwidth for tickling at the moment either.

… but laughing isn’t just an indication we think something is funny. It’s also one of the ways we bond with other people.

As pretty much every user experience designer ever knows, MailChimp is brilliant at using humour to build user intimacy. The rest of us should be too, without trying too hard — without taking ourselves too seriously.

6. Find common interests and pursue them together

And here’s the clincher to finish:

… researchers at the University of Michigan and Stony Brook University found that couples who were growing bored with their relationship after seven years together were less close to each other and less satisfied with their marriage.

Nip the boredom bug before it bites by sharing experiences together. What common interests do you have? These experiences not only increase your closeness because you’re actively engaging in an activity together but they also give you a shared history, and if you’re lucky a few inside jokes.

This speaks to retention. Once we have established a relationship with users, we need to maintain the intimacy throughout. We can’t just focus on initial conversion and then stop caring. We need to capitalise on our shared history and make them feel like they’re part of something.


None of this is really that ground-breaking in terms of the theory behind how we treat users, but I think the tone of language used here is important in bringing about a shift in thinking towards a more human, more personal relationship with our users in order to develop intimacy. Let’s not tie it up with business jargon. Let’s not convert it into numbers on a spreadsheet. Let’s instead be people together. Let’s be emotionally available. Let’s pay attention and accept unconditionally. Let’s be supportive and laugh and find common interests to pursue together.

We need to be devoted to remembering every little detail of who our users are now, who they have been and how far they’ve come in order to truly give them what they need.

We need to celebrate our anniversaries and send flowers and chocolates. We need to buy them that new BBQ they’ve been subtly hinting at. We need to listen carefully to their needs and be attentive and responsive. We need to laugh and cry and share share share everything with them.

Because it is when you give of yourself that you truly give.

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