The UX of Gifting and Returns

Tech and Improving the Gifting Experience

Valentine’s Day is the holiday when significant others go through the gifting ritual. But gifting can be a draining process because it is hard to predict someone’s wants. When faced with what to get loved ones, users may turn to technology or gifting services for a hand in picking gifts. In this article we explore the user experience of giving a gift.

Gifters want to use technology tools to feel like they “found” a better gift that the receiver will like. Increasing the certainty of receiver satisfaction removes the doubt in the gift giver’s mind. Does the removal of doubt change degree of expectation? With less doubt, the gifter has less at risk and a guaranteed reward. However, if the gifter has a greater risk, she has a greater feeling of satisfaction when the receiver loves a gift the gift giver took a chance on.

But using a gifting service removes part of the personal nature of gifting. No longer does the gifter feel that they personally selected a gift for the giftee. Instead, gifting is now delegated to algorithms and automation. This is similar to using a personal assistant to complete a task, like picking up laundry. This turns gifting into a service and reduces the user’s form of expression. Another issue is that gifting can be considered a life skill and delegating it to a a service infantilizes the user because she now lacks agency in being able to make her own gifting decisions. In this impersonal sphere, a person who doesn't know the user can use automated services to get a gift. For a gift to remain personal, does it still require the act of shopping and selecting gifts to themselves?

A compromise of using a gifting service involves the user’s avatar. The avatar or agent can be considered an extension the user. Having an avatar go shopping for a user is acceptable because it is a form of the user. Because the avatar represents the user, it may not be considered an automated gifting process. The user may likely feel engaged and not feel like they are delegating tasks to an external source because the avatar may feel like a construct of the user.

Sociopolitical reasons for gifts

In the digital age, gifts might go away because of sociopolitical reasons. No longer do people need to bring material things to others to manipulate them. Also, there is a recognition that there is no need to wait for occasion (such as Valentine’s Day) for gifts.


Artificial intelligence(AI) is reflected on society through generosity versus greed. With the decreased focus on material goods and increase in interest of experience, the idea is that experience is what matters most. There is certain monetary value based on tangible things. Physical gifts are rooted in a set price and status. Often physical gifts are not things the user needs, but rather status symbols. At the root, gifting is both cultural and mathematical.

The Gifting User Experience Journey

In gift shopping, the user goes through an emotional journey. The user initially faces the “What should I get?” questions and doubt in finding a present that the receiver will like. Then, the user shops at multiple places for research of what to get, facing anticipation. Sometimes, the user will get frustrated when she is unable to find a suitable gift. If a great gift is found, the user will have an “AHA!” moment and satisfaction. If the user has to settle on an acceptable gift, the user feels an “I guess this is ok” mellow feeling.


Types of gifts also provide different user experiences. The user may ask “Do I want to give a safer or riskier gift?” This question often falls into play when the receiver may want something very specific. With a safer gift, the user gifts the receiver exactly what the receiver wants. Both parties are satisfied, but there is no emotional spike related to risk or expectation. With a riskier gift, the user has increased anticipation and potential that the receiver will love or hate the gift. On the other hand, the receiver also has increased expectation rooted in anticipation, questioning “What will I get?” but receives a greater reward when the receiver gets something interesting and surprising that she loves.

Taking gifting out of the physical domain reduces the risk associating with gifting. The receiver has projected a lowest common denominator of what is known –what she wants. The gifter has to gain insight into things that the receiver wants –information the gifter often knows but forgot. There is also “the hunt” factor and the intent that “someone put in the thought”. No longer does the user have to hunt through Tiffany’s or Harry Winston’s for the perfect diamond necklace. Nor does the user have to put thought into the gifting process if it is automated. Because there is no investment, the user has less emotional attachment to the outcome of the gift. How can we increase emotional engagement by simulating gifting?

A technologically functional, frictionless gifting experience may be the solution. However, this new gifting system may change the way humans interact with not only technology, but also with each other.

Gift Alternative Solutions

Gift cards

Instead of buying presents, people often give gift cards. Gift cards are a completely different user experience from physical gifts because it reduces the risk of giving something the recipient won't like. The receiver’s odds of surprise and delight are reduced. But the receiver knows what they are getting and is able to utilize the $20 to Victoria’s Secret. Gift cards are practical, but do not provide the emotional experience. They are almost taboo to give on Valentine’s Day.


Gift subscriptions

Gift subscriptions are a great middle ground. The receiver has declared interest and openness to be surprised. Upon receiving the gift, the receiver will immediately be surprised. However, gift subscriptions spread smaller bursts of surprise out over time instead of giving the receiver a big bullet of emotion.

cheese club gift

Customized gifts

There is also the option of creating something as a gift instead of purchasing. Some websites and services like Etsy, even connect makers with people who want something made as a gift. Ultimately, people are less creative than they think they are but want to customize. The idea of a customized gift is great but doesn't scale well. The gifter also faces a high risk that the receiver may not like the gift, but accept it out of politeness.


Gifting experiences

Instead of giving a physical present, gifters can provide experiences. Experience gifts are special for people who don't want stuff and an alternative vehicle for gifts. Gifting experiences seems to be easier because this level of gifting is not based on tangible things. Although experiences also contain a price tag, experiences provide a value that may be greater than an item to buy/sell. An experience may also provide a personal value to the receiver that may not be equated to a numerical price tag.


If the receiver does not like the gift, the problem arises in sending back gifts. Before the digital age, returning gifts was much more difficult and considered rude. Now, the receiver can slap a label on their Amazon box and send it back on its way. Because returns are more automated, the act of returning a gift is considered more socially acceptable, even during events like Valentine’s Day.

gift wrapping

But how can we aid or push returns? There is the option of creating an automatic return service that gives the receiver a picture of the gift and allows the receiver to accept or decline it. If the receiver declines the gift, the gift will not leave the warehouse.

In practice, automating returns is difficult. Brick-and-mortar retail clients do not like processing returns because customers buy more by physically going into store. Disappointing gift can create more revenue when the receiver goes into the store with a dress return and leaves with 4 new pairs of shoes.

If experiences are valued more, the return rate between experience and tangible gifts should be analyzed. Because experiences are personal to the user, returning experiences may be awkward. Experiences may also be unreturnable. Gifters may have great intentions, but if the receiver of Soulcycle classes has never biked before and hates exercising, the experience may not translate to any meaning. In turn, these experience gifts would mean nothing to the receiver and end up being unused or re-gifted if returns are questionable.

amelia wong

Trained as an intellectual property attorney focusing in medicine, Amelia Wong brings technology to reality with design. Creativity drives her and she offers detail-focused solutions to solve problems efficiently. As a designer, her process begins with empathy. Listening to and identifying with the user are essential to creating the best user experience. Her work can be found at