Years before the American President Richard Nixon stretched out his arms to form his famous V-sign, he was wrapping them around a pair of Chinese giant pandas named Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. The two bears likely did not realize they were a part of a much larger embrace between two distant countries, brought together by international diplomacy and the power of reciprocation: a concept that spans borders, as well as every facet of user experience design.

In 1972, Nixon visited China in an effort to normalize relations. He and First Lady Pat Nixon, along with their diplomatic entourages, visited the Great Wall of China and major cities along the Yangtze River Delta. The pandas were a gift from then-leader of China, Mao Zedong. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were captured a few months prior in the far-off, temperate, central county of Baoxing, an area similar to the cool, misty forests of West Virginia, excepting the expansive fields of bamboo and the occasional black and white patched bear.

As soon as the two pandas arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in mid-April 1972, they grabbed the hearts of the American public. Over 75,000 people visited the zoo the following weekend. Seen as a goodwill gesture by the Chinese government, the gift of the pandas was an overture harkening back through a thousand years of Chinese diplomatic history. The Chinese Empress Wu Zetian was said to have given pandas as a gift to the Japanese Emperor Tenmu in the seventh century. Chinese diplomats revived this tradition in the 1950s and it continues today, primarily under loan agreements to national zoos and preservation programs.

Although historians refer to Nixon’s trip and its gift as “panda diplomacy,” it could just as easily have been referred to as “musk ox diplomacy,” for the gift of the pandas was reciprocated by an equally furry gift to the Chinese. Nixon gave them Milton and Mathilda, a pair of baby musk oxen. (Side note: you haven’t seen adorable until you see musk oxen calves.) However, their trip was ill fated. Chinese zookeepers reported the oxen arriving with runny noses, skin infections, and suffering from depression. After days in their new home, the musk oxen’s distinctive shaggy fur began to fall out — the poor, little things. Depressed, runny-nosed, and now balding, sweet Milton and Mathilda did not take up residence in the hearts of the Chinese public as much as their ursine peers had in America. Yet, this exchange shows us that even small gifts may create great opportunities that may last for decades, establishing relationships, reshaping economies, and setting in motion countless other experiences.

…even small gifts may create great opportunities

Two decades before Nixon’s trip to China, a landmark French book had reached the shores of America. The Gift was written by the French sociologist Marcel Mauss. First translated into English in 1954, the book still stands as perhaps the most definitive explanation of our need to reciprocate. Mauss studied native societies. Although much of his work revolved around gift giving, his discoveries would eventually shed light on everything from marketing to software design. For his observations show us that gift giving creates bonds between givers and receivers. A gift creates an implicit obligation for the recipient to reciprocate. We give. We receive. We give back. Like intertwined threads, reciprocations weave into the fabric of an experience, strengthening and forming connections between givers and receivers, and by extension, between designers and users.

Marshall Sahlins’ book, Stone Age Economics, further expounded Mauss’ notion of reciprocation by segmenting it into three types: generalized, balanced, and negative.

Generalized reciprocation is the most common: we give a gift and do not expect an immediate return. You might help a coworker with a project, shovel snow off your neighbor’s driveway, or cook a meal for your spouse. Such gifts are freely given. We do not issue paper receipts expecting immediate repayment. It would be detrimental to our relationships if we did. “Dear spouse, I hope you enjoyed dinner. You now owe me one meal.” Try it. You will soon realize this is a thread on which you do not wish to pull.

Dear spouse, I hope you enjoyed dinner. You now owe me one meal.

As working professionals, we can appreciate balanced reciprocation: we exchange our efforts for money. Tit for tat. Our employers or clients reciprocate the gift of our labors with the gift of a paycheck.

Negative reciprocation is expecting a gift without the intention of providing one in return. It is the equivalent of participating in your office’s holiday gift-exchange but arriving empty-handed. “Happy holidays, I brought you nothing. Now, let’s see what you have got for me.” We will talk about how software often says the same in a few moments.

Generalized, balanced, and negative reciprocation may initially seem to operate only at a person-to-person level. However, they are a part of any interaction, including those between people and software. Mauss referred to the inherent quality of reciprocity in gift exchange as “total prestation.” Granted, total prestation is not a term that easily slides off the tongue; yet, the term does speak to a gift being something greater than merely an object being given. We feel total prestation when we give and receive a gift. But what is it?

During Mauss’ research, he encountered the gift-giving customs of the Māori people. Hau, the spirit of the gift, graced the both the giver and receiver. But, left unreciprocated, the hau would haunt the receiver like an evil spirit. It compelled the receiver to reciprocate. Although we may not feel haunted by the gifts we receive, we do feel obliged to reciprocate, be it person-to-person or person-to-software. Something is given, and we are compelled to return the favor.

The gift exchange

When we design software, we create bonds between our users and ourselves. A user gives us the gift of their time and attention; we repay them with the gift of a good user experience. We give. They give back. Everyone reciprocates. These experiences contain generalized, balanced, and even negative reciprocations.

Some user experiences are generalized. As creators, we don’t expect an immediate repayment by users. We lay the groundwork for future reciprocation, wishing to be repaid with more of the user’s time and attention.

Other experiences are balanced. We give a user information or utility in direct exchange for performing a desired behavior, such as purchasing, sharing, or carrying out any number of other actions.

All too often, companies make the mistake of designing experiences with only negative reciprocations. Forced email sign-ups, unnecessary form fields, and takeover advertising are just a few of the ways companies extract a user’s time and attention without reciprocating. Such experiences frustrate users. Time and attention are gifts that users may give us, but they should do only through a clear and balanced exchange. Negative reciprocation is a one-way street, paved with selfish intentions and littered with the wreckage of poorly designed user experiences.

Effective user experiences are comprised of both general and balanced exchanges. Consider the example of a free trial. If we follow the strict definition of reciprocation, we might believe our free trial is a balanced exchange between our application and the user: “Hello, user, here is a free trial. Now that you feel obliged, please buy our software.” Tit for tat. But if we delve further into the concept of free trials, we soon realize this is a generalized reciprocation. A free trial establishes a possible future opportunity, but it takes time to mature.

By providing an incentive, users may reciprocate more quickly. You see this pattern play out frequently within consumer packaged goods promotions. A customer receives a free sample — say, for example, a tiny bottle of shampoo (a generalized reciprocation). The free sample contains a coupon (an incentive). The customer uses the coupon to buy a discounted, larger bottle of shampoo (a balanced reciprocation).

We can use a similar tactic to expedite a software purchase. A user receives a free 30-day software trial (a generalized reciprocation). The software could offer a discount to purchase a one-year software subscription (an incentive). The user then buys the discounted subscription (a balanced reciprocation).

Exchanges are often far subtler than a purchase. Enticing users to perform other behaviors follows the same forms of reciprocation. We lay the groundwork by providing engaging content and helpful functionality. For example, a calendar app may notify a user about upcoming events, seeming to only benefit the user. However, a user may choose to view details about the event, thereby directing his or her attention to a screen that also displays advertising. A video game may incentivize a player to “level-up” by providing the player with more powerful character traits, which in turn provides a reason to maintain a monthly subscription. Though subtle, each of these experiences is an exchange of gifts between the designer and the user.

The exchange of gifts between designers and users range from the exotic to the mundane. Like pandas plucked from a Chinese forest and deposited in front of curious onlookers, beautiful design and cutting-edge technology may fascinate and mesmerize users. We celebrate and reward such innovation. Yet, even the most unglamorous experiences can still reciprocate. The “Miltons and Matildas” of experiences repay the users’ gifts of time and attention by providing unobstructed interfaces, clear communication, and a concern for the user’s wellbeing. Such experiences serve as the basis for ongoing interaction.

Thus, we can understand reciprocation in UX to be less a matter of wowing users and more a means of creating a relationship with them. We give. They give back. The distance between designers and users shortens. That is the real gift.