Pleasure, Flow, and Meaning – The 3 Approaches to Designing for Delight

by Jared M. Spool

Thanks to Marco Dini for the Italian translation of this article.


That’s the big, black, all upper-case message dominating the top of the online purchase email receipt from the sporting goods retailer, Moosejaw. It’s hard to miss and it’s even harder to avoid smiling when you read it.

An email receipt has very important functions. It tells the shopper what they’ve ordered and how much they’ve spent. It tells them when it’ll be shipped and where the company thinks it’s going. It often gives the shopper a tracking number for the shipment. If there were no other words but these details in the email, the receipt would fulfill its function.

Yet, for years, retailers have co-opted the receipt as a touchpoint. They put in solicitations, offers, and pleas to encourage future business. The customer doesn’t ask for this additional marketing copy. In most cases, the shopper learns to ignore the extra stuff.

Sorry For Being So Mean About It

Moosejaw’s ironic anti-plea is delightful. And it matches the copy throughout the experience of using the site.

For example, the solicitation to sign up for their email newsletter says “We’ll send you great discounts, contests and a list of the best mimes in Portland.” In the rules for their loyalty program, they’ve rewritten the usual fine print about expirations to say:

Your points expire two years after they are earned so be sure to spend all your points before then. After two years are up, the expiring points will automatically be removed from your balance by our Rewards Points Overlord (RPO). The RPO is extremely cranky and insists that once the points are gone, they are gone. Sorry for being so mean about it.

Imagine trying to get your organization’s legal counsel to approve an apology for being mean. Yet, Moosejaw’s copy says things like this all the time.

Moosejaw’s trick is they insert these funny little bits into all those pieces of text we never pay any attention to. The user is rewarded for paying attention to the bits of the design that every other site trains them to ignore. It’s a brilliant strategy.

Intentional Delight

If you agree that design is the rendering of intent, it’s easy to see how the thoughtfully humorous copy at Moosejaw is intentionally designed. It’s a great example of how we, as designers, can integrate delight into what might be an otherwise plain experience.

We can measure a design on a scale from frustration to delight. The middle of this scale is a neutral point, where the design is neither frustrating nor delightful. It doesn’t suck, but it’s not remarkable, either. It’s just a neutral experience.

When improving a bad design, we first must remove the frustrating bits to get to that neutral point. Observation of the users’ experience, followed by a careful rethinking of the design can remove everything that’s introducing frustration.

Improving the design from the neutral point to introduce delight is a different process. It’s additive, whereas getting to the neutral point is reductive. We have to know what to add to make the experience become delightful.

Dana Chisnell’s Three Approaches to Delight

Back in 2012, noted author and UX expert, Dana Chisnell, introduced us to her framework about how to design delightful experiences. (She did a fabulous webinar on it called Three Levels of Happy Design which you can find in our All You Can Learn library.) It outlines approaches that teams can take to start thinking about how they add delight for their users.

At the center of Dana’s framework are three different approaches to making an experience delightful: pleasure, flow, and meaning. Teams can pick which of these they’d like to tackle. For most teams, pleasure is the easiest while meaning will provide the most challenges.

Delight Approach #1: Pleasure

The Moosejaw strategy of embedding clever copy into the corners of the design people normally ignore is a great example of pleasure. It’s almost like the Moosejaw copy has adopted a strong personality – one that uses humor (with a tinge of sarcasm and hyperbole) to make for a distinctively pleasant shopping experience.

Humor isn’t the only way to make a design pleasurable. Something as seemingly simple as providing solid, informative content can also do it.

The electronics retailer, Crutchfield, uses great content to design delight into their site. Where many electronics retailers just republish the manufacturer specifications, Crutchfield has their enthusiastic support staff provide the product descriptions. The Crutchfield support team includes simply-made videos demonstrating what the staff person thinks of the product, detailed product research that explains the ins and out of the technology, and thoughtful comparison data, to see how different products line up.

Because Crutchfield’s front-line support people write the content, it’s written from the perspective of answering customers’ questions. Readers emerge feeling confident about their product choices. That confidence is delightful for many customers.

We could describe Moosejaw’s personality as mildly snarky and anti-bureaucratic. In contrast, we could describe Crutchfield’s personality as confidence inspiring and empowering to make smart decisions.

Both are different, yet both deliver pleasure to their customers. Pleasure is one way Dana describes how we graft delight into our designs.

Removing the Unnecessary

Few things have had a bigger effect on how we look at e-commerce user experience than Amazon’s 1-Click. In 1999, Amazon put a button on a product’s page that automatically shipped the product to a previously entered address and charged a previously entered credit card. This changed the world.

For the frequent purchaser, 1-Click removed six screens of the checkout process from their shopping experience. No longer did they need to review the shopping cart, enter their authentication credentials, provide shipping information, provide billing information, provide payment information, and confirm their order. Press one button and the product is on its way.

Before 1-Click’s introduction, every site had those six steps. They were a required part of the shopping experience, yet they offered very little value to the frequent shopper. At best, the forms might be pre-filled by logging into an account, but the shopper still had to visit each page of information and click to continue.

1-Click removed these steps, allowing the frequent shopper to focus on the part they loved most: selecting each product they wanted to own. Removing parts of the shopping process that aren’t about selecting products kept the user focused on their objective. That focus increased their delight.

Delight Approach #2: Flow

Doing one’s taxes is another user experience with a lot of steps. Throughout the process, users enter data printed by one computer into a form that’ll be read by another computer, often using their own computer.

That’s why Intuit developed the mobile app, SnapTax. SnapTax takes a picture of the employer-supplied W-2 form. It scans the text off the form and plugs it into the requisite spaces in the 1040A or 1040EZ tax form.

Once the taxpayer has reviewed for errors, the application then files electronically on their behalf. The entire operation reduces filing taxes to just a few minutes. The user never re-enters computer-supplied information. For these users, the speed makes filing taxes much more delightful than spending hours filling out forms.

Both SnapTax and 1-Click remove steps that computers can do just fine. Removing unnecessary steps improves the flow of the design. Dana’s framework shows us that improving the flow makes the design more delightful.

Delight Approach #3: Meaning

Of everyone who’s worked in our office, my former colleague Brian is probably the most proud of the products he purchases. Ask him about any product he uses, from the tea he drinks to the bicycle he rides, and he can give you a story about the company. He can tell you exactly how the tea is made and which special sporting events the bicycle manufacturer supports. The stories are compelling. They make me want to run out and buy the products myself.

Brian finds meaning in the products he purchases. Actually, I think ‘find’ is the wrong word. He ‘hunts’ for meaning behind the businesses that make the products. When he discovers it, he soaks it in and wears it proudly. You can hear the delight he has, not just with the product, but with the deep pride he has in being an active customer of those businesses.

It would be easy to brand Brian as a zealot or a fanboy. It’s not hard to find people like him – people who are proud of the companies they support. Yet, this kind of passion is hard won for those companies. Building a devoted fan base is the hardest of the approaches for delight, but probably the most long-lasting.

Delight Only Works When Basic Expectations Are Met

Similarly, I fly United Airlines almost every week. I thought it was cool when I learned United’s staff took special care of the Olympic athletes on their way to the Sochi Games.

However, you won’t hear me singing United’s praises because they don’t give me anywhere near the care they claimed to have given the athletes. They treat me like cattle, despite the volume of money I throw their way every year.

Meaning can only work to delight if it’s authentic. It’s got to be reflected in every touchpoint of the service delivered. Brian’s passion for the bicycle manufacturer is not just because of their event support, but because they make a solid product and deliver great service. My lack of passion for United comes because of the poor service I regularly receive.

Whether we aim for any of the three approaches in Dana’s framework – pleasure, flow, or meaning – the design will only be delightful if it meets the users’ basic expectations. Our work has to start by understanding what users expect the entry stakes to be. Then we can consider how we’ll infuse delight into our designs.

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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