Is ‘Delight’ the Best UX Design Intention?

by Jared M. Spool

In a fairly ordinary hotel, by the side of the swimming pool, on a wall that would otherwise go unnoticed, there’s a bright red telephone. But the phone isn’t what makes this distinctive. It’s the sign mounted above the bright-red phone.

It’s labeled “Popsicle Hotline.”

True story. The Magic Castle Hotel in Los Angeles has nice rooms, but they aren’t special. The beds are comfortable, but not in any special way. Even the outdoor pool area is like hundreds of other hotel pools. Except for the bright-red Popsicle Hotline phone mounted on the wall.

Picking up the phone engages the magic. A voice answers “Popsicle Hotline. How may I help you?” You tell the voice you’d like a popsicle. There’s a small discussion about the flavor.

Then a moment later, a hotel employee, dressed up in a tux and white gloves, appears by the pool with a silver tray. On the silver tray is your popsicle. You retrieve your popsicle and thank the employee, who promptly disappears back from whence they came.

How do hotel guests describe their experience with the Popsicle Hotline? One word: delightful.

Is delight always the right design intention?

Delightful seems to be the perfect word for a Popsicle Hotline. We think of design as the rendering of intent. Delighting poolside guests with a tux-clad employee presenting a popsicle on a silver tray was their intention. They rendered it wonderfully.

But should designers always aim for delight as their intention? There are many designers who say ‘no.’ They are quick to bring up scenarios where they believe delight isn’t the right scenario. They suggest that delight is an inappropriate intention for serious outcomes, such as paying your taxes or planning a funeral.

Respectfully, we disagree. We think, even in the most serious of outcomes, delight is always the right goal to aim for. Here’s why.

What’s the proper opposite of frustration?

We’ve all experienced designs that frustrate their users. We wonder, did the designers really intend this? Of course not. If we assume best intentions, those designers must be unaware that their design decisions left their users frustrated.

Yet, if it wasn’t their intention to frustrate their users, what was their intention? What is the opposite of frustration?

We believe the opposite intention of frustration is delight. As designers, our goal is to make designs less frustrating and, in the process of achieving that, we’ll make the design more delightful.

The Magic Castle Hotel’s designers certainly did that with the Popsicle Hotline. They made the poolside experience more delightful.

The role of expectations.

Ordering a popsicle is different than planning a funeral. Planning a funeral shouldn’t be a frustrating experience, but should it be a delightful experience? For the people involved, it’s a time of sorrow and loss. Should we try to delight them?

To answer this, we first need to look at what makes a design frustrating. Users become frustrated with a design when they can’t do what they want. Something in the design is preventing them from moving forward with their goal. That friction is what’s frustrating about it. Remove the friction, and the design becomes less frustrating.

A design becomes frustrating when the designers have missed an expectation.If an app has more steps than the user expects, the user becomes frustrated. If it asks for information they didn’t expect it to ask for, they become frustrated. If it doesn’t get them the outcome they expected, they become frustrated.

As our users work through our design, we can see where we’ve met their expectations and where we haven’t. In the places where we missed their expectations, we frustrate them. We make the design more usable by meeting their expectations.

Delightful = Exceeded Expectations

The Magic Castle Hotel met their guest’s expectations. Guests weren’t frustrated, but their experience wasn’t remarkable—until they encountered the Popsicle Hotline.

What made the Popsicle Hotline a delightful experience was that it exceeded their expectations. They expected an average hotel pool experience. Tux-wearing employees presenting free popsicles on a silver platter wasn’t at all what the guests expected.

Frustrations arise when the experience is worse than the user expects. Delight happens when the experience is better than the user expects.

The balance between frustration and delight.

The balance between frustration and delight is also true for planning a funeral or paying taxes. If we don’t design the experience well, we’ll miss the user’s expectations and frustrate them.

However, if we look for opportunities to exceed our user’s expectations, we can end up delighting them. If they’re planning a funeral, our design—no matter how delightful—certainly won’t make their loss go away. If they’re paying their taxes, it won’t reduce their pain from giving the government more money.

It’s very possible their expectations of these things are very low. Maybe they had bad experiences in the past. Or maybe they don’t know what to expect.

Intuit’s TurboTax designers created a free app, called SnapTax. The app scans a photo of a U.S. W-2 or 1099 employer form and uses that information to file the user’s taxes electronically. It reduces the time the user needs to prepare taxes from hours down to minutes. If the user expected it to take a long time with a jillion complicated steps, paying taxes with SnapTax is a delightful experience.

Funeral planning involves many decisions and having to spread difficult news to friends, family, and acquaintances. Helping the person planning the funeral get the word out, while minimizing the decisions involved would be delightful if it exceeded their expectations for the planning process.

Making our design more delightful is the best intention.

The Popsicle Hotline is a great way to make someone smile. We may not get a smile from our user when they’re scanning their W-2 form with SnapTax or making fewer decisions while planning a loved one’s funeral. Yet, they may still think of the process as delightful.

That’s because delight comes in many forms. It’s much more subtle and nuanced than many designers think. It can be silly, like the Popsicle Hotline. Or it can be fast, assuring, and comforting, like SnapTax.

With solid research, we can identify what our users are expecting from our designs. We can watch them interact with our designs. We can see where we’re frustrating them by missing expectations.

And we can look for opportunities to exceed expectations. By eliminating frustrations we’re pushing our design closer to meeting expectations. Push a little farther, and we’re in the territory of delight.

That’s how we’ll deliver delightful products and services to our customers and users. And maybe, just maybe, we can evoke a smile too.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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