We are social animals, and the sociocultural level of our experience influences our product preferences and interaction styles. We need to identify with a social group, and we use that group identification as a method of self-definition [131]. Our product choices are influenced by the preferences of our group [7; 36] and we use product preferences to communicate our group affiliation and self-identity both to others and ourselves. Even those who specifically reject making a fashion statement make the statement (to themselves and perhaps to others) that they are too practical to be influenced by the whims of fashion.

Tapping into group identification may be as basic as the Betty Crocker Company appealing to a “good homemaker” identity, or it can reach extremes. Schouten and McAlexander described the Harley-Davidson brand as “in effect, a religious icon, around which an entire ideology of consumption is articulated” [119, p. 50]. In the words of one owner, “I can tell you that owning a Harley is like being in a brotherhood. Everyone that has one feels a sense of kinship with other Harley owners” [103, p. 21]. Perhaps it is not surprising that 94% of Harley-Davidson owners would buy one again [99]. Harley-Davidson consumer loyalty illustrates that group identity influences are “sticky,” meaning once they are established they are very difficult to change with feature-based analysis or counterfactual reasoning [11].

The applications of group and self-identity principles have been considered by marketing professionals [108]. Additionally, human-computer interaction researchers have shown that when we interact with cognitively complex products like computers, group identity dynamics can make us feel like the computer is part of our team. In one study, participants who interacted with a computer designed to evoke group affiliation responses “perceived the computer to be more similar to themselves, saw themselves as more cooperative, were more open to influence from the computer, thought the information from the computer was of higher quality, found the information from the computer friendlier” [83, p. 669] when compared to participants in the control condition.

Group affiliation is only one social psychological principle that humans demonstrate when interacting with computers [39; 109]. When computers flatter us, we feel better about ourselves and our performance, and we like the computer more [40]. When computers help us, we are willing to help them back, a principle referred to as reciprocity [38]. When a computer listens empathetically, programmed with active listening skills, we feel less frustrated [63]. And when we interact with a computer that is designed to establish and maintain long-term social-emotional relationships, we respect it more, like it more, trust it more, and want to continue interacting with it more than the ordinary model [9]. We do this because our brains have not evolved to deal with cognitively complex technology like computers, so we treat computers like what they resemble most from our evolutionary history, another person. And we do this even if our only interaction is through text, even if we are computer savvy, and even if we do not think we will [109].

In human-human interactions, developing long-term social relationships has many benefits. In helping professions—like counseling and coaching—it is associated with successful outcomes [94]. In education, it predicts students’ cognitive, behavioral, and emotional engagement [123]. In business, it correlates with managerial effectiveness, employee productivity [41], and marketing persuasiveness [102]. Therefore, it is likely that attending to the social aspects of interactive technology will yield similar benefits.

Visceral appeal creates a product experience that is attractive on first impression. Good behavioral experience ensures it remains enjoyable over time. Sociocultural experience reinforces the first two levels: it influences product preferences, adding to any product appeal generated at the visceral level, and it enhances the ongoing product experience by providing a rewarding social dimension.

Now that we have reviewed the nature of user experience, let’s consider how it can be engineered.

Contents, User Experience Engineering (UXE) Essentials Series