Delight is not cute flourishes

“Delight” is becoming an overused and increasingly bastardized term in design conversations

How often have you heard the words “we need to delight the customer” or been asked to add “delightful details” or even, god forbid, that “it’s ok to give up some usability for delight”. Webster defines “delight” as something that gives great pleasure or a strong feeling of happiness. My post accepts this meaning of delight, explores how often we actually feel delight, and what really delights us.

“Delight”, in modern day product conversations, has unfortunately become synonymous with cute flourishes. We have no evidence that cute 404 pages are delightful to users, however we continue to use the word “delightful” to describe design details whose purpose is simply to instill personality and brand into our product. I am not delighted by the little dog in trello telling me what’s new in the product. I thought it was cute the first time I saw it — but I like trello because I can quickly create new tasks using only my keyboard. A happy twinkling sound when I check off a to do item doesn’t delight me, it was nice the first time, but now I simply want it muted.

Digital products are not acrobats— using grand and often shocking gestures to entertain and engage humans. Digital products exist to make people’s lives easier. The idea of any person being constantly delighted by every app she uses on her iPhone is absurd. Beautiful animations, tongue-in-cheek 404 pages and irreverent error messages are paraded around as “delightful details” — but they really are simply brand elements that a business uses to distinguish itself. While they might generate subtle emotional responses, they certainly don’t generate a strong feeling of happiness in the user.

Should products aim to delight? Can’t they just be useful and meaningful, without trying to manipulate your emotional journey through life? Can’t they just solve a problem and get out of the way, instead of wanting you to gush over them? The need to constantly “delight” might come from a laughingly grandiose idea of the role our product plays in a user’s life.

What delights humans?

I have started working on a qualitative research project to understand what delights people, and I started with the easiest subject — myself. In the last few weeks I was delighted when:

  • I got an unexpected phone call from a friend
  • I called an airline and was immediately connected to a human who changed my flight without any additional charges
  • An important package arrived one day before I expected it.
  • I saw a giant bird perched on a pole, its wings spread wide as it sunned itself
  • I was walking on the beach with my boyfriend and we came across a swing someone had crafted simply with ropes and branches
  • My iPhone reminded me about an important upcoming birthday (that I would have totally forgotten about otherwise)

A few hours on twitter helps unveil what delights humans across the world. The experience of a steep uptick in happiness, that moment of delight, the wonderful thing you are compelled to tell everyone else about — what creates this feeling?

Delightful moments seem to have at-least one, and often multiple of these:

  • something unexpected
  • something that makes me feel valued
  • something that makes me feel smart / not look stupid in front of others
  • something that saves me time
  • something that saves me a lot effort
  • something that makes the world significantly better
  • nature

Starting now, let’s stop calling cute flourishes “delightful”

I love littlebigdetails as much as the next person, but I don’t want us to delude ourselves into thinking that these things create delight. There is a good reason for instilling brand and personality into a product — it is especially important to differentiate your brand if you are in a crowded space like Uber and Lyft. However, moments of delight can only happen when products help people be smarter, feel fulfilled, and avoid mundane tasks — and once they experience your sweet feature, it’s going to stop delighting them because they expect it to be just that good.