Capturing emotion and context in research

Using Breakup Letters to zoom in on the low points of customer experiences

Corbet Fawcett
4 min readJul 19, 2022

Are researchers allowed to have favourite methods? I have at least three, but there’s one I almost never use — Love Letters and Breakup Letters. (I consider those a single method because they work best as a pair.) I’ll leave Love Letters for another time, but Breakup Letters are on my mind this week because I’m getting married. It’s not what you think!

[Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash]

I’m thinking of Breakup Letters because I’ve been creating name cards for my guests. This means using my Cricut, which I love. But it also means getting intimate with Cricut Design Space (their software), which I loathe with the fury of a thousand suns.

This would be a perfect thing to capture with a Breakup Letter. The concept is simple: Ask participants to pretend they’re breaking up with a product or feature or service. Ask them to write a breakup letter telling them (the product) why things have to end. This taps into a person’s emotional experience with a product, and often teases out the “why” behind reactions. It’s also a load of fun.

Here’s an example:

Dear Cricut Design Space.

I love you, but we need to break up. It’s not that we haven’t had great times together — we have! But I don’t think you really care about me or about making our lives together easier.

You just don’t give me what I ask for. When I try to copy/paste things, I want an exact *duplicate* of things I copied. But it’s like you’re not listening. When I copy things, you paste them back all randomly. My carefully created alignment and spacing, gone! It’s like you don’t care about all the work I put in to create that perfect design. When I copy something I want a *copy*, and that’s not what you’re giving me.

Oh, and I have to mention layers. Why won’t you let me name layers? Layers are important to me. When my design starts to get complex I end up with dozens of them, and I need to toggle them on and off constantly. It’s easy to get lost and this is a thousand times worse than it needs to be because you insist on calling each group “Group.” Thanks but no thanks. I’m tired of trying to figure out which of my 50 groups is the one I need. It’s so frustrating — don’t you care about me?

And one last thing. Why are you so slow to answer me? Every time I finish an operation I have to wait. Some things, like exiting a print, take multiple sips of coffee. I have a pretty darned good laptop so I don’t think it’s me. Aren’t you listening? What do I need to do to get your attention?

I won’t go on. We’ve had some good times together. These seemed like little annoyances when we first started dating, but the longer we’ve been together the more they’ve driven me crazy. So I’m sorry, but we need to break up.

Voila, a Breakup Letter. As a researcher I see so many good things here. I see pain points, but also the context around why these are painful. I get a sense of just how frustrating these issues are. There’s also prioritization — the participant (me) chose these three points out of many possibilities. There’s a lot of great insight here. And this method is also flexible — you can easily use it for asynchronous or in-person research, and you can use it with small or large(ish) groups. The upper limit is really dictated by synthesis. These letters are really big open-text fields, so when deciding on the size of the study you need to consider how much unstructured information you can reasonably synthesize. It helps to provide participants with a light template and an example.

As a participant, this can be a super fun exercise, especially when paired with Love Letters. Pairing the two lets participants offer a balanced view of your product. If you just ask them to do a Breakup Letter they may feel disloyal to a product that they actually like.

So that’s a Breakup Letter. I honestly love them. How meta is that? They’re fun to write and to read, and because they tackle the question of “why” they can be really helpful for providing context.

So that’s one of my favourite methods, though there are other faves! What about you — what’s your favourite method for gathering customer insight?



Corbet Fawcett

User researcher. People leader. UX coach. Fascinated by people. []