Why is it so hard to make gifts people will love?


Gift-giving is at the base of most societies in the world and has had a fundamental role throughout history. However making a good gift still feels like hitting a jackpot. Why is it so hard to make good gifts?

Giving gifts is an important part of human interaction. It defines our relationships and strengthens (or weakens) bonds with friends, family and lovers.

People give gifts for many different reasons:

  • To express appreciation and care;
  • as a power move to establish a psychological edge over someone;
  • as a way to influence behaviour;
  • to show off;
  • to make someone like you;
  • simply to follow social conventions, e.g. making gifts for Xmas and birthdays.

Whatever the reason, in this article I will not focus on why we make gifts but rather on what defines good gifts and how to make gifts with higher chances of success.


Image 1 – Gift matrix

Gift-giving is a tricky beast.

In this gift matrix I attempted to exemplify the main dynamics behind good gifts. The vertical axis represents how ad-hoc and personalised the gift is, while the horizontal axis represents how surprising and unexpected the gift is for the recipient.

From this matrix originate 4 main zones. Let’s see them in detail.

“Most gifts belong to the danger zone, being ultimately thrown away and ending up in landfills.”

Danger zone

On the lower right we have the danger zone, which results from the combination of an impersonal gift that wish to be surprising, in other words a Bad gift. Often times, when we rush to make presents at the last minute, without a proper understanding of the needs and taste of the recipient, while still trying to gift something unexpected, we end up in this zone which will leave both us and the recipient with a mixed feeling of disappointment, embarrassment and despair. Although in our ultra-consumeristic society we are already submerged by tons of products we don’t need, most gifts belong to the danger zone, being ultimately thrown away and ending up in landfills. We shall all do something about it.

Safe zone

The first reaction we have when trying to avoid the danger zone is to play it safe. Welcome to the Safe Zone. Gifts in this zone are impersonal and expected, typically gift cards or cash. Their generic nature makes them easily acceptable and useful, and allow the recipient to then proceed buying what he/she wish. The downside is that when we receive such gifts we typically get the feeling that either the other person rushed, didn’t put any effort, didn’t understand us or a combination of these. Not a nice place to be if you truly care about the recipient.

Pragmatic zone

On the top left corner is the pragmatic zone. Here we find useful gifts that are welcomed although expected. Gifts in this zone are in fact often an expressed request from the recipient. They could be part of a gift registry, the answer to a letter to Santa, or the result of obsessively talking to your partner about something on a daily basis. The pragmatic zone differs from the safe zone in that it requires more effort and a deeper understanding of the recipient’s wishes, certainly not something that can be improvised or rushed. The downside is however the total lack of the surprising factor that characterises the best, most memorable gifts.

Magic zone

Finally, in the top right corner we find the place to be, the Eldorado of gift-giving, the Magic zone, where the magic happens. This zone is characterised by a unique combination of personalisation and surprise that make gifts feels like an unexpected marriage proposal. On the very high top-right corner are those very rare gifts where the givers appear to have a deeper understanding of the recipients’ needs than the recipients themselves. The disrupting effect of these gifts can win hearts and even gain you friends for life. Only when you put in the hours to do your home-works, open up your eyes, ears and heart to truly understand the recipient’s background, hopes and fears you can make a great gift. Sounds like a lot of works right? It is.

“Only when you put in the hours to do your homeworks, open up your eyes, ears and heart to truly understand the recipient’s background, hopes and fears you can make a great gift.”

To summarise, we can define a great gift as personal and surprising. Personal, as it requires deep knowledge about the personality, values and tastes of the recipient in order to be eventually a useful and appreciated gift. Surprising, as the positive, almost magic emotions caused by an unexpected gift are what differentiate a gift from a purchase or a transaction.


Image 2 – Gift matrix & archetypes

To each quadrant of the gift matrix corresponds an archetypal person that thinks and behaves in radically different ways when making gifts. Each of us can be one or more of these archetypes depending on the situation, the recipient or where we are at in our lives.  Let’s analyse them one by one.

The Emotional Insecure

In the danger zone lives the emotional insecure archetype. These people often fantasise about making great surprising gifts but lack a real understanding of the recipient and tend to procrastinate. You will often find them asking advises and suggestions to friends or family members to fill their empathy gaps. Gift giving for them is like playing a slot machine: they might hit a jackpot once in a while, but most times they fail.

The Last-minute Rusher

In the safe zone grows and proliferates the last-minute rusher. These type of people typically lead busy lives focused on their careers and hobbies. They have a lot of acquaintances but few friends. Gifts for them are a recurring annoyance they need to deal with. Budget is often not a problem, but time is, you will often find them ordering Gift cards online in bulk limiting the time spent for gift-giving to its bare minimum.

The Disillusioned Pragmatic

The pragmatic zone gives name to its main inhabitant, the disillusioned pragmatic. These people typically stopped believing in the magic of gifts since finding out Santa was a scam. They hate making and receiving gifts; the only reason they still do is because social conventions forces them to. They strive for quality, usefulness and hate wasting money. They manage gift-giving as a transaction, their motto being “tell me what you want and I will buy it”.

The Generous gifter

Finally the top right corner, the Magic zone, is populated by rare, generous and altruistic people that put their heart in everything they do, and see gift-giving in its purest form: a way to express love and appreciation to the people they hold dear. Generous gifters are good listeners, they enjoy listening to people’s stories and develop empathy for them. This allows them to make useful gifts that might help the recipient further develop existing passions, discover new interests, connect to meaningful communities.

Now, after having understood the main dynamics of gift-giving one question comes natural:

“if i want to make good gifts, do I have to make it a priority and spend loads of time and energy on it?”

The simple answer to this question is Yes, indeed that is the only way. There is no magic trick as all good things in life require hard work. But this does not mean we cannot use some help, perhaps using technology to gain insights, save time and make the whole process more fun. This is what I set to do with Giftpick, a project exploring the role AI could have in making gift-giving easier and more enjoyable.