In an era of low-touch, design for intimacy

For well over 1.5 years we have lived in a low-touch economy. This global deprivation of opportunities for intimacy might just trigger a new kind of luxury: human bonding. Companies that master how to design for intimate customer experiences are likely winners of tomorrow. We offer four principles.


Line Groes, CEO & Founder of Hera&Me and Founder of IS IT A BIRD
Katrine Kunst, PhD, independent consultant and researcher & Senior Customer Insights Manager at A.P. Moller - Maersk

The experience of intimacy is an important component of human well-being; through intimate moments we feel accepted, valuable, and related, all of which are prerequisites for human well-being. This goes for your customers, and for your employees. But intimacy has been severely challenged by social distancing measures for over a year. In a sense, this was bound to happen, regardless of Covid-19. While the pandemic has accelerated us into the low-touch economy, digitization and automation have over the past two decades eliminated many human touchpoints with companies, products, and services, and with that, many opportunities for moments of intimacy.

So, how might businesses tap into the potential of lost intimacy? Building on some of the key characteristics of intimacy, we argue that it is possible for managers to strategically approach intimacy and infuse it into the customer experience and product development.

Principle 1: Pay it back

Perhaps the most fundamental element of intimacy is that is relies on a mutual self-disclosure. There has to be some sort of reciprocal balance or one party will be left exposed and vulnerable. That’s why the ‘reactions buttons’ of Zoom and MS Teams, which let users throw hearts or applause at other users when they’re speaking, makes a lot of sense.

While there is still room for improvement in many of today’s everyday digital tools, we do see companies that excel at incorporating feedback into their product. And in some cases, building their entire offering around the provision of feedback. Leading roof window supplier Velux launched a product called ‘AirBird’. Not only does AirBird deal with the quite intimate topic of in-home air quality, it also provides feedback to users on this intimate topic of one’s indoor air quality. In doing so, Velux can strengthen bonds with consumers in ways that let them play an important ongoing role in consumers’ lives.

Principle 2. Facilitate sharing

Without sharing, there is no intimacy. Facebook’s ‘Care’ reaction button, introduced in the early stages of the pandemic, illustrated that your business can also be the facilitator of intimacy between your customers. In fact, we argue that if approached strategically, intimacy can be the springboard for innovation into new business areas as well as for innovating your existing customer experience to gain long-term loyalty. Something of a certain level of personal importance has to be verbalized, expressed, shown, or in other ways be externalized for intimacy to appear.

In a business context, it is really about creating the right frame for sharing and for self-reflection. Not only between your company and consumers, but indeed also between consumers. A good example is the Swedish app ‘Dreams’. Their concept is actually quite simple: Most people have dreams, but many are afraid share them with others and even with oneself. People might fear that their dreams are unattainable or just stupid – leaving them exposed. The ‘Dreams’ app helps users externalize and share their dreams in a safe environment, and helps users save money for making those dreams come true. In that sense, the Dreams app takes on the role of being a facilitator of intimacy between people and actually also a form of intimacy with oneself.

Principle 3. Infuse a sprinkle of risk

The third intimacy design principle is to introduce an element of risk. One way to achieve a sprinkle of risk can be through live experiences. Theatre is an ever-relevant example of such intimate and live customer experience. There’s an undercurrent of risk among both actors and audience, that something could go wrong. The actors expose themselves, and the collective experience is dependent on the audience response – every night.

Inspired by the intimacy and ‘nerve’ of live, managers should in our opinion critically review whether the paradigm of the entirely frictionless customer experience actually leaves their brand invisible. Intimacy, on the other hand, is not always 100% comfortable. It should actually tickle a little in the stomach. That is the feeling that will stick in consumers’ minds.

Principle 4: Make it exclusive

Lastly, intimacy is almost by definition exclusive; one cannot have intimate relationships with everybody as they would then not be intimate. Intimacy requires that some things are hidden to others. This can take the form of limited editions, creating that sense of being part of a small, exclusive club.

Let’s exemplify. In a sense, Covid-19 has democratized learning and professional networking as webinars and virtual conferences compete for our attention. Suddenly, it’s possible to attend conferences at the other side of the globe at no or low cost. But we wonder if we will in a post-Covid-19 world (whenever that will be) see new, highly exclusive, conference formats. The virtual conference might stick (as conference organizers can sell much more tickets that way) but the lucky few who actually attend in person will be in for a real treat of human bonding. The same with the many, let’s face it, hopelessly generic customer loyalty programs. We expect to see more exclusivity for a selected few – not in the form of pre-sales or extra discounts, but in a form where brands bring people together.

Now, let’s get intimate

Intimacy in a business context can easily be mistaken for having a fine-tuned recommendation engine that knows what your customers eat for breakfast. But as our four design principles show, the potential of intimacy is much broader. Although it may sound almost counterintuitive that such an elusive and soft concept can be deliberately orchestrated we urge leaders and designers to seek out the innovation potential, as well as the human potential, in facilitating intimate encounters between people and between people and brands. In the end, we are all human beings that long to feel connected.