Relationship Sauce : mouthwatering dating recipes for products

Make your product excel in long relationships with users. Aspire to have 20 year anniversaries with them. Not just one-night stands, or a casual date.

As a designer, you’ve bestowed your digital product with personality. It behaves a certain way giving it unique character— a look and feel. This makes your product a unique person in a world full of other unique people. Like every unique person, products need to flirt, date and seduce users during early interactions. Successful seduction usually forms longer, ‘sticky’ relationships with users. Unsuccessful seduction fails to retain users in lasting relationships. As a result the product fades into the mist of forgotten apps.

The ability of a product to be great at dating is a key ingredient of its personality.
I call this ingredient — Relationship Sauce.

Designing tasty Relationship Sauce for your product means applying those vital personal, emotional and practical lessons you learnt from real dating or romantic experiences — your own, your friends or great love stories you’ve read or seen—to your own product.

Every product wants users to fall and stay in love with them. As a user’s relationships with them grow ever more complex, products need to be more thoughtful and personal to win exclusivity in a user’s life.

Why Relationship Sauce?

Discussions with friends in long relationships inevitably reveal that most have precious dating and early-romance stories that are routinely shared at the dinner table.

These stories make you smile, make you say ‘Awww that’s so sweet!’ Some were terrible first dates but got lucky. Some fell in love at first sight. Most will tell you they had to work out a careful hush-hush strategy to get the person of their dreams to commit to be together — the proposal and eventually the marriage.

Learn to apply these lessons to your product too!

You cannot stop at just the first date. Design the relationship all the way - the proposal, the marriage and life after. That’s what makes them lasting Relationships.
Little Printer (BERG London). Physical and digital products ‘date’ users differently.

Users get introduced to products for the first time, just like we met our girlfriends, lovers and partners. There are many words used to describe these early interactions — the unboxing or product setup (for the physical), user onboarding or the ‘first time user experience’ (FTUE) etc.

Relationship Sauce is the sum of all the little dates with a product and its users. It is the complete romantic script or story, binding experiences together into a relationship over time and space- a series of dates and interactions.

Does your app or product have the appropriate dating strategy? Can it get users to fall in love quickly? Once in a relationship, can it keep the relationship fun and interesting? Does your product need to have an affair to woo it away from another relationship? Or does it just want a one night stand — no strings attached, no judgements made. All of these are fair game in defining relationships. You just need to know which one your product needs to provide for the user.

Early on, users will awkwardly fumble with your app a couple of times. Unless each early interaction is carefully planned with a desired impact — dating, affair or one-night stand — users will restlessly move on to the next product. If you weren’t paying attention to each individual user, you didn’t realize that while some wanted a one-night stand, others were looking for longer relationships. Knowing the difference between them is the first step before designing for it.

Start shaping early experiences with your product around the appropriate romance your users need to have with them. Don’t be shy, you’ll only get one chance to make an impact.

Jacob Palmer in “Crazy, Stupid Love” (played by Ryan Gosling) had figured out a neat relationship sauce recipe.

Your Product’s Relationship Sauce

Some common questions couples get asked at parties -
“How did you first meet each other?”
“Who set you up for the date?”
“When did you know she was the right person for you…?”
“How did you pop the question?”
“What was the wedding like…?”

Every product has it’s own unique Relationship Sauce — a strategy to get users to fall and stay in love.

If you’re thinking about bringing a product into the world, it’s worth reflecting on these stories. Your product will try hard converting people from occasional daters to committed users.

Spotify’s Year in Music is a great example of celebrating ‘anniversaries’ with users.

Making great Relationship Sauce is about knowing the right time and place to propose. It is about knowing how to make an impact on that first date while still remaining fun to be with a year later.

Relationship Sauce is the unique way for your app to get users to stay in long relationships with them. It enable apps to be interesting, surprising and attentive to a user’s needs long after they first started using it.

Here are a few distinct Relationship Sauce recipes I’ve identified over years of work on varied products -

  • The New Romance (discussed in this part)
  • The Fatal Attraction
  • The Arranged Marriage
  • The One Night Stand
  • Old Friends in Love
  • The Lasting Relationship

The New Romance

(This dating recipe is best used when a product is the first of it’s kind or using a new technology or experience that needs new user understanding)

A still from the movie ‘Amelie’ where there are a lot of great examples of dating strategies between 2 strangers.

In the case of a New Romance, your product really needs to borrow from Amelie. Imagine Amelie, your revolutionary new product — one of the first of its kind. It solves important problems, creates new opportunities, is great fun to use and easy on the eye.

Normally you’d think that Amelie would land a partner for life by just showing up with great personality — useful function, pristine layout and thoughtful user experience.

Think again.

The onboarding process from the movie ‘Her’ was a great example of a (literal) relationship with product.

If you’re dating on Tinder or OkCupid, you’ll know that users have a lot of choice in the world of online dating — there’s very little time or patience with incompatibility. Nobody calls a boring first date back for a second dinner. So you’ve got to plan those first few moves thoughtfully.

No matter how awesome you think your personality is deep inside, you have to roll into a relationship gradually, and then work to stay in it. Your app or product will need to flirt honestly, in it’s own uniquely distinct way.

The New Romance recipe is the archetypal romance between two strangers falling in love. Users typically have no idea what Amelie (your product in this case) is or does. Some stumble upon Amelie, others find her because they’re looking for someone like her. Go watch the movie Amelie and you’ll know what I mean.

In a romance with Amelie, your user needs to ‘meet’ to understand what she is all about — try interacting with Amelie a few times, see how amazing she is and how she could make life better — all the ‘aha moments’ that endear Amelie to you. On the flip-side, Amelie too needs to quickly learn the user’s needs and preferences and adapt where possible.

Most successful products achieve this through a process of onboarding - tooltips, coach-marks, emails and other tools at their service. But I believe these alone aren’t enough.

Here are some overall dating skills you need to apply to your product.

Date One: “Wow that was different…”

Make date one fun but memorable! Just like your first great date with someone amazing — your product too needs to make a loud, lasting impression. Amelie’s user must end Date One feeling — ‘Wow, that was quite amazing! I’m curious to know Amelie more and tell my friends about her’.

That’s typically what you’d do if Amelie were a person too, right? You’d probably tell a good story. You’d describe likes and dislikes, try and do something to stand out, right? The same product dating logic applies on Date One.

It is crucial to say less, boldly and clearly — say one simple, desirable thing about yourself. It takes guts, but saying less loud and clear always works. Your date has butterflies in her stomach and want’s to call back. Several products try and say too much at once! Most are just incoherent first impressions while others get pushy too soon.

User Onboarding for Nike+ Move was a simple fun way to trigger A-ha moments for a rather abstract concept — NikeFuel.

Date Two : “Aha, that’s what you’re about”

This moment is crucial and often uncared. Most products stopped flirting after the first impression, but you need to make Date Two special. Here’s why.

Amelie’s user is back with good feelings from Date One. The user is beginning to realize what Amelie is about. Fuzzy decisions are being made in their minds. Amelie — Relationship material? Or not?

Most products are super warm and flashy during the first date, then disappointingly dry and cold thereafter. Remember — it took around 3–4 dates before your date truly started to like you. The same applies for your product. The user called back for another date, which means they’re interested. Don’t blow it by being disinterested now!

During Date 2, it’s important to pitch 2–3 key takeaways about your app. These need to be done promptly and clearly across all channels available to your product — not just the date with Amelie, but through consistent communication through emails, push-notifications, tooltips or whatever tools you invented. Your user needs to really get Amelie and get with Amelie.

Great Relationship Sauce makes the user think about your product fondly, long after the date ends. Remember those thoughtful texts or the bouquet of flowers? Little things mattered if they were done right. They turn into massive wins. Just don’t be creepy or annoying.

Date Three (or later) : “May I Kiss You?”

Most dating stories and guru’s would share one insight — the third date is usually the right time to make a bold move — the ‘gesture of intent’. Usually this is when you reach in for the kiss. By Date Three, your product Amelie won’t get told off by a dating user, but neither will she come off as disinterested for not trying!

Amelie’s users have started to really like her by now or at least be attracted enough to consider taking a plunge. Maybe they’ll turn her down, but they won’t mind her making intentions clear. Amelie can always try again later, once you’re dating more regularly. If your product is really hot and attractive, the user, sooner or later will kiss back. Else you’ll just be friends and hang-out once in a while thereafter.

Use all the tools in your product’s toolkit to align around a common goal — the Relationship.


  • Be memorable during the first many experiences, not just the first-use UI tutorial. Wear your best cologne!
  • Be clear about each desired ‘Aha’ or climax, and work backward from there. Make an impression!
  • Don’t be pushy too soon. Common sense dating rules apply - wait for Date 3 even though it’s so tempting to smooch at first sight!
  • Don’t be flashy without real substance. All flash and no depth makes your product hollow and boring.
  • Don’t be ego-centric. Products, like bad dates, have a tendency of talking only about themselves. Invest in listening and learning the user’s needs — their likes and dislikes.
  • Don’t be Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde. Many times your actual product speaks a certain tone of voice in person but a whole other tone in an email or website. This makes it appear schizophrenic. Your product is all one, even if teams making it are many.

Clearly, the New Romance recipe can never be an afterthought. It needs to be designed deep into a product’s personality.

A product without Relationship Sauce is just a bland protein or vegetable — full of nutrition and goodness, but lacking in flavor that makes it stick in your mind and most importantly in your heart.

So if your product needs to be in a New Romance with users — reminisce and gather all those great dating stories and experiences you or others around you had. Watch Amelie or study great love stories with your team. Analyze their scripts and plots. They’ll give you all the inspiration you need to make your Relationship Sauce tastier.

(Thanks for reading! I’d like to thank some dear friends and also colleagues at Spotify Design for helping me through this article. I’ll be writing more about Relationship Sauce so please hit ‘recommend’ so I know you enjoyed reading this.)