We love, like and heart. We fill the cold, shining glass screens of our phones with pulsating emotions under the warm skin of our fingers. We spend hours with digital products that we love coming back to, love interacting with and love to be a part of. We love them – and that is not a coincidence.

Without question, love is one of the strongest emotions in the human repertoire. Love gives us the power to do things we could not without love, it helps us get through hard times and difficult tasks without losing sight. The best marketers and product designers in the world know that – and use tools to recreate the sensation of love within their products, making users stick to their brands and products.

How do they do that? More importantly: What is love?

Baby don’t hurt me

By definition, love is the “strong affection to each other” – used to describe the relationship between people. In marketing, this strong affection can be expressed for products as well, let’s say a burger or a burger brand. If you repeat “I’m lovin it” just often enough, you might actually believe that you love the Big Mac. But can you love a burger clown just as much as your mother?

The ancient Greek knew that it wasn’t that easy and defined different types of love: Eros, the sexual passion. Philia, the deep friendship. Ludus, the love for the game. Agape, the love for the world. Pragma, the longstanding love. Philautia, the love to yourself. I think there is some more, but I am sure there’s no term for “the love for the burger”.

Modern psychology categorizes makes a difference between passion, intimate love and commitment. I am pretty sure I could be passionate about a Big Mac, but not much beyond that.

To understand how love works, we need to look at the biochemistry of love – at the three stages of love, to be exact.

Stage 1: Lust

The first phase or stage of love is lust or arousal. Driven by the hormones Oestrogen and Testosterone, sexual tension rises in that phase, as well as the motivation to find a mate. Experiments have shown that altering these hormone levels can control the sexual desire, and the decline of hormone availability will lead to lower sexual interest.

As these hormones are being released spontaneously, lust can be triggered by a variety of things: moving or static images of potential sex partners, certain scents or haptic feelings, like wood, velvet or leather. The ambient marketing industry has known this for years, using a combination of various senses to trigger these reactions and create a lust for their products. For example: If you are able to touch and feel a product at a store, the likelihood of you buying rises by 400%.

But there’s another interesting aspect of arousal: Our bodies have a hard time determining between fear arousal and sexual arousal. In a psychological experiment, men who were walking on a wobbly shaky bridge showed much higher hormone levels and sexual ambition than normal. The idea of creating slight insecurity to drive arousal will make it easier to drive lust for a product, for example by cutting availability or adding constraints: If I can only buy the product today, but not tomorrow, I feel much higher arousal of buying it.

Stage 2: Attraction

«Between two products equal in price, function, and quality, the better looking will outsell the other» – Raymond Loewy, the legendary designer of Lucky Strike or the Greyhound bus attributed aesthetics to successful products. In our body, the hormones Norepinephrine and Dopamine attract alertness and some kind of “feel-good”, when we are attracted to something or someone.

A big source of attraction to things or interfaces is rooted in the expectations we have in a thing and the fulfillment of those: We are pleased if something works out as we expect it. In combination with the wobbly bridge-effect, this can be a powerful tool: Combining the arousal of slight insecurity and giving the relieve and Dopamine-reward of “Hey, it works” will create a very satisfying feeling, making users attracted to a product. You know that feeling: If you are unsure which button to click at first, but then hit the right one, you will feel really good.

Attraction, however, can also be triggered by just sticking around. The Mere-Exposure-Effect will give your body little dopamine-rewards if it recognizes something it already knows. That is the reason why product shots in TV commercials will be repeated over and over, and also why we feel attracted to the best friend in High School at some point. Proximity creates attraction.

A high level of attraction will manifest in mirroring movements and a higher willingness to act accordingly: If someone is attracted to you, they are more likely to do what you are doing, dress like you, behave like you. Remember that, we will come back later to it.

Part of the reason why the Mere-Exposure-Effect works are also the reason why habits will have the same effect: If you repeat something over and over and always get an expected outcome, your brain will reward you for that. In product design, the term Feedback Loop has manifested for that: You do something, you will get a response (feedback), you feel good and will do the same. Games and Social Media are great implementations of the Feedback Loop, which will result in a high attractiveness of the product – if we are attracted to a product, we start to care for it.

Stage 3: Attachment

Care. Having a personal affection or a feeling of attachment to somebody or something – welcome to phase 3 of love: attachment. After the feeling of lust and attraction, love also means to stick to something. Responsible for that feeling is the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin.

Oxytocin is better known as the “cuddle hormone” – responsible for the love of young moms towards their newborn babies. It is a key binding agent for human relationships and socialisations. The impressive bit: it also works with Social Media. Studies have shown that a few minutes of Facebook interaction are enough to release the same amount of Oxytocin as the body of a young mother would.

This would explain the feeling of attachment we have to apps such as Instagram, Tiktok and, yeah, Facebook. Social interaction is a great retention driver in digital products. The sensation of talking to a real human being or getting to have to do something with them creates loyalty in us. A good example of this would be the Intercom “How can I help you” chat popup we see so often on landing pages: Instead of an anonymous help button, a real person with a real name and a real human phase show up. Same for real people in Email marketing – you remember Clark from Invision or Lea from StudiVZ?

I Know You’re Tired of Loving with Nobody to Love

The key of love though is: Like empathy or artificial intelligence, it is a perceived sensation. If we do not feel loved back, we get frustrated loving something or someone. So whatever you do to create the feeling of love, make sure you give back.

Give people the feeling of being loved. Appreciate the human beings who are using your product. Be nice. Say thank you. Tell them how you feel about them.

In that sense: I love you, gals. Thank you for reading this – and happy Valentines Day!

Johannes Ippen
About the Author

Johannes Ippen is a designer from Berlin, passionate about French punk rock, really strong espresso and writing about design. Follow him on Twitter for more of design-related essays. Full bio →