In more recent times, it appears that our focus as designers has shifted from making usable, task-oriented designs towards a more “ooh, cute GIF” approach. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe I’m a dinosaur refusing to change with changing design trends. But here’s my take on it anyway.
Let’s take a step back and see why we emphasise so much on “delights” in design.
Every user interaction is a story. Every story has a beginning, middle, and an end. But it’s not just the ending of a good story that makes it memorable. Carefully chosen, organically connecting moments are what make stories memorable.
Success states are one such moment that affirms to the user that they have accomplished their task.
Let’s look at MailChimp as an example.
If you’ve worked with digital products for any length of time, you know what email marketing campaigns are like. Teams carefully craft the email copy and design, turn it into an email template the mailing software can accept, make sure all the CAN-SPAM compliance is met, double-check the mailing lists and sequences to ensure it’s going to the right people, and then cross their fingers and hope the emails actually get delivered.
It’s a stressful activity, to say the least. Something I can attest to, every time we roll out a new feature on a project.
To lighten the situation, MailChimp throws up a congratulatory animated high-5 from the brand’s chimp mascot, Freddie.
Humans are emotional creatures. When we experience any interaction (”stories”, if you will), we feel emotions, whether positive or negative.
The peak-end rule suggests that people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e., its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience.
Which is why you remember that annoying but wild ex for mostly the wild parts.
By creating a high positive peak, we have a better chance of making users remember our products.
I couldn’t find specific stats on brand recall as a function of UX satisfaction at the time of writing this. But I’ll update this article with those stats if/when I do. That being said, you know it to be true anyway, don’t you?
When done right, these small interactions can give users that elusive but unarticulated “warm fuzzy feeling”.
Asana takes this a step further by making it so that the cute animation doesn’t play on every task completion. It’s a bit of a gamble. But guess what? The lack of a guaranteed reward just makes users try it more, just for the chance of seeing it happen. You can check out the scientific basis for this psychology here. This principle is precisely what makes slot machines so addictive. But that’s a topic for another day.
Seeing your food turn into a little parcel that’s on its way to you doesn’t seem like much. But it reinforces the feeling of “yayyy, it’s happening!”
But WHY does it work?
There are 2 fundamental models at work here.
One of the key concepts I learnt in business management is product levels. I’ll be honest, that degree was money well spent.
Kotler’s Five Product Levels provide a great framework for guiding product design. The way it works is pretty straightforward. I’ll take some liberty in simplifying it further here for the sake of conciseness.
- Core + Generic: There’s a core definition for what your product is. Without this, your product does not exist.
- Expected: This is the bare minimum level of service or utility your customers expect from you, because that’s what all your competitors are doing. Without this, your customers have no real reason to consider you.
- Augmented: This is what differentiates you from your competition, and what can be a factor for users to choose you over them. These are things which your customer may already consider as a decision-making factor in their purchase process.
- Potential/Delight: This is when your product goes above and beyond what your users expected, delighting them with a level of service or utility which blows the competition out of the water.
Let’s take an example. Consider a hotel targeted at executives and consultants who travel frequently. Here’s what its service levels could look like:
- Core: A comfortable bed with 4 walls and a roof.
- Expected: Core, + room service, air conditioning, hot water, etc.
- Augmented: Expected, + corporate tie-up deals, airport pick-up service
- Delight: Room preferences and habits being synced between locations. For example, a hotel in Mumbai knowing what preferences and habits a guest has from when they previously stayed in the London hotel, minimising friction and even pre-empting experiences.
Would the delight mentioned above make any sense if the hotel’s rooms actually had wobbly beds or got sweltering hot? No, because the core experience and basic expectations are not met.
Created by Noriaka Kano in 1984, the Kano Model was developed to study the contributing factors to customer satisfaction and customer loyalty, as a function of customer expectations.
This matrix considers two dimensions — investment versus customer satisfaction.
3 categories of investment are considered:
- Basic Expectations
- Performance Payoff
- Excitement Generator
Now let’s look at how the hotel mentioned above fares with this model.
Continuing the example of the hotel. We all have some or the other idea of what to expect in a hotel room. Now imagine getting a hotel room where the “bed” is a thin blanket on a cold floor, the roof leaks water, and the walls are so thin you could the guy next door breathe.
Would you count this to be a satisfactory hotel experience? I guess not.
But behold! The room has motion-sensing floor lights and a smart mirror! And, the blanket is made of silk, which is really good for your skin and hair.
Would you now consider this to be a satisfactory hotel experience? I guess not.
The least your product needs to do is what the user expects it to do. If it does not meet your user’s expectations, it falls short of satisfaction, and into the realm of frustration. Sure, maybe your users have some unrealistic expectation, but that’s more likely a marketing problem (something I recently encountered on a project).
You could add all the bells and whistles in the world, but you won’t make a dent if you fail to meet the bare minimum level of expected satisfaction.
Further investment in basic expectations beyond meeting satisfaction is a waste of resources. The user will not be any more satisfied.
Adding more features or making them fancier is not going to help if your product does not meet its basic value promise.
This refers to the perceived performance of your product or service from the user’s perspective. This is where you can think of adding more features and streamlining processes to make things work better. If your product consistently performs better than they did previously, or better than the alternatives, its perceived value increases.
Let’s go beyond the basic expectations you have from a hotel room. A bed, 4 walls, and a roof over your head.
- Now what if the bed was improved to allow heating and cooling to desired temperatures?
- What if the room had a study table with a nice desk lamp and a chair with good lumbar support to allow you to work on those late-night presentations?
- What if the hotel had a corporate tie-up with your employer, offering discounted rates or guaranteed/reserved bookings so you don’t have to worry about that?
Suddenly it’s a much nicer hotel, isn’t it? It’s not exactly extraordinary, but it’s a compelling case for being chosen over the competitors.
Excitement generators go beyond the functional working of the product. They elicit an emotional response from users through the thoughtful little touches in design, or the personality it exhibits (like Mailchimp’s Freddie does).
This is where that elusive “delight” is found.
Now, how could a hotel generate delight?
- A centralised guest profile, while allows the hotel to “know” a guest in any of their other hotels, with the staff trained to know them by name.
- The hotel remembering preferences and frequent requests across their chain, eliminating the guest’s need to repeat them everywhere they go.
These are seemingly insignificant details which make users feel like you’ve gone out of your way to make their experience better.
Yes, yes, the long, rambling rant has a point to it. In more recent times, the design of user experiences is putting more emphasis on being clever rather than useful. For example, look at custom error pages. Instead of letting the user know what has gone wrong, or providing useful alternative actions, more effort is put into a clever pun or jokey pop culture reference.
This kind of UX/UI design looks great on a Dribbble shot, but does little to recover a negative user experience.
Sure, a page that says more than “Something went wrong” is better, but being quirky while being unhelpful is just being annoying.
Not thinking at a “system” level
No amount of cute animations is going to fix a poorly-designed workflow. As we saw with the help of the two models above, if you don’t get the minimum requirements for satisfaction right, you won’t get anywhere with designing “delightful” moments.
When designing experiences, workflows and use cases have to be thought out from a system perspective, i.e., how will the various user journeys and design patterns work together as one cohesive unit. You need to think of the experience at every Product Level.
Relegating design to “making things pretty”
I know, I know. It’s 2022, this can’t possibly be the case. But the kind of conversations I have at times say different. In a sense, this is the antithesis of putting design on a pedestal. Both cases only serve as a detriment. Design is meant to serve form as well as function. This problem becomes most obvious when a product is built from the perspective of what’s easiest for the developers instead of what’s right for the users and the business.
Creative over context
Starting to get management buy-in using creative gimmicks rather than contextual design can put you in a tough spot. I’ve had meetings where the entire conversation was derailed because the other party wanted to go over some designs they found which “looked cool”. There was little consideration for the type of product or audience it was designed for.
The result can be an aesthetically-pleasing but terrible experience that users resent.
Misunderstanding what an MVP is
MVPs (Minimum Viable Products) are intended to give you insights on how well your product is doing on is track to becoming something that’s a first-in-mind, habit-forming association in users’ minds.
And here’s the thing — your MVP doesn’t have to be the most aesthetic experience ever at the cost of an effective workflow. If you’re putting more resources into the visuals on an MVP over the effectiveness of how it solves the user’s problem, you’re just polishing a turd.
Most of the above listed issues boil down to the level of maturity of an organisation’s design culture.
It’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that your organisation has a mature design culture if you’re shipping stuff that’s getting a lot of upvotes on Dribbble.
But if your product doesn’t work as well as it looks, maybe your design culture is not so mature after all.