You get what you give: Reciprocity and designing with exchange in mind

Grounding UX design in anthropological theory, we explore how the concept of reciprocity can be used to build impactful digital experiences.

Written by: James Pancaldi
119 YOYO HIGHRES February 05, 2019

Baggy jeans and the odd Tamagotchi are evidence we’re deep in a ‘trend revival spiral’ and that the 90s is still alive and kicking. If you’re not convinced, just take a look at Hudson Mohawke’s new website. With that I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon with a reference to New Radicals’ track, ‘You Get What You Give’. Nostalgia aside, the title hits the nail on the head when thinking of the idea of reciprocity; a vital aspect of exchange which we’re going to explore through the lenses of Anthropology and User Experience (UX) Design. Don’t worry, no need to dig out your Oakleys.

What's anthropology got to do with it?

To kick things off, from a structural perspective, reciprocity and exchange are wrapped up in a ‘total system of giving’. This simply means that everyday life involves giving and, as a consequence, receiving. As such, giving - of both tangible or intangible ‘gifts’ - can be perceived as fundamental to the social fabric of society.

Can you think about the last time you sent a birthday present to a relative or friend or even when you donated money to charity? In return, I’d take a guess that you received a birthday present when your birthday came around or a ‘Thank you’ email appeared in your inbox from your chosen charity. If you didn’t, I expect you were a bit miffed and will likely reconsider making the effort next time.

Marcel Mauss

To give an anthropological example, Marcel Mauss (image left) explored gifts in a Maori setting, illuminating the relationship between gift-giving and spirituality.¹ In this instance the reciprocation of gifts (taonga) is driven by the belief that they personify part of the donor (hau): ‘... to make a gift of something to someone is to make a present of some part of oneself.’ Here, the obligation to reciprocate a gift is motivated by the belief that if someone fails to return the donor’s hau, they might come to harm.

Not all gift-giving is perceived as life and death and there is variation in and between cultures. I recently learned that luxury, pyramid-shaped watermelons are gifted on special occasions in Japan and can fetch upwards of $500! Regardless of how gift-giving is manifest, it typically inspires some form of reciprocation and can be read into broader concepts of exchange, including all things transacted as part of the establishment of social relations.² To this end, it becomes more and more evident how reciprocity and exchange directly translates to digital experiences and the relationships that brands build with their customers online.

Pyramid Watermelon (1)
Luxury pyramid shaped fruits are gifted in Japan.

UX and I

Granted, when I mention ‘relationships’, it might seem like we’re creeping into the territory of Service Design and the overarching customer experience. But where UX Design as a process holds fast is the goal to build user-centred solutions by balancing business and user needs. As a result it becomes a designer’s responsibility to translate this system of exchange into a delightful user experience that positively impacts your business.


Customer experience standards have risen, but at the cost of relationships.
R/GA, Brand relationship design report

Designers streamline user flows, create button interactions, or compose a responsive experience - what do users take from this? Likewise, users spend time on a website, purchase a product online, or play an online game - what does this mean for your business?

What I’m trying to get at is that Design is a two-way street and reciprocity underpins the success of your product or service. If you take the time to create a beautiful and engaging website, people will likely spend more money on it. If customers spend more money on your site, don’t sit back, take the time to improve it further and make sure it meets your audience’s needs.

Ultimately, though, unless users have no other choice but to use your product, the responsibility lands with you to create an impactful experience if you want to establish a competitive edge. In their brand relationship design report, digital product and marketing agency, R/GA, have gone as far to say that:

“Customer experience standards have risen, but at the cost of relationships. It’s a strange side effect of digital transformation: where the functional flattening of the Internet renders customer experiences colorless. 

With today’s easy website clicks built using the same back-end tools, brands have traded in their magic and texture for automation and monotony. And it’s hurting their customer retention potential.”


Whilst it’s certainly important to consider well-known design patterns, thinking about experiences with exchange in mind, or more specifically ‘relationships,’ appears to present an opportunity to differentiate your brand from the ‘colorless’ competition. If this is all still feeling a bit too abstract and you’re wondering how this translates into the real-world we’ve had a think about some key considerations if you’d like to design with exchange in mind:

Know your audience

Know your audience and leverage customer insight to understand what your users want and need so that you can offer the right content, functionality or calls-to-action at the right time.

Utilise usability principles

Tap into industry-recognised usability principles to reduce friction and optimise your site - accessible content and functionality is king.

Leverage Interaction Design

Remember the importance of interaction design and push the creativity to drive customer satisfaction by delivering an engaging and memorable experience.

Adopt an 'always on' approach

Adopt an ‘always on’ approach to optimise your user experience by keeping your users’ needs within arms reach and retaining that ‘magic and texture’ of memorable experiences.

Although trends are being recycled like nobody’s business, the reciprocal relationships between businesses and users prevail. These symbiotic brand-customer relationships have the potential to benefit businesses, individuals and beyond. Just take a look at the increasing importance of Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives and brand values as a result of the rise of the conscious consumer. You certainly get what you give - and vice versa and (UX) Design is well-placed to unlock that potential to produce truly impactful products.


  1. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies
  2. James G. Carrier, Gifts and Commodities: Exchange and Western Capitalism Since 1700
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