Do you feel happier using your smartphone? Get a dopamine hit from balancing your books? That's because Silicon Valley has embraced "delight." Los Angeles Times tech writer Chris O'Brien* has a recent piece about how the term is taking off in Silicon Valley:
Yahoo Inc. Chief Executive Marissa Mayer wants to "put our users first and make their daily routines truly delightful."
Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and mobile payment service Square Inc., wants his companies' products to "delight the world."
Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom suggests, "If you delight people even a little bit with a simple solution, it turns out it goes very far."
In a recent blog post, Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston explained that his company acquired hot start-up Mailbox, an email organizer, because it was "simple, delightful and beautifully engineered."
Even "Microsoft Corp. in Washington and Dell Inc. in Texas have embraced it," he adds. "It's the corporate equivalent of parents joining Facebook, making it instantly uncool." Speaking of Facebook, director of design Kate Aronowitz wrote last year that "winning customer hearts is as important as winning their minds," and that delight was one key to winning hearts. (She also declared that "Facebook was one of the first companies to place a premium on design." How's it feel never to have existed, Apple and IDEO?) And it's not just an American thing: last year there was a workshop on "Delight in Design" in Birmingham, England, a city that's a lot cooler than you think.
But, Chris argues, this isn't trendy babble (or not just trendy babble):
underneath its trendiness and the suspicion that it's just some new marketing babble, the talk of delight signals a radical shift in the way Silicon Valley creates products.
Someone invoking the principles of delight is saying that when thinking about making a product, what should come first is not the technology, but the people it is intended to serve.
But what is delight? Facebook's Aronowitz defines delight as "those little moments... when a product doesn't just meet expectations, it exceeds them." Kaaren Hanson, vice president of design innovation at Intuit, says that the designers of accounting and tax software "evoke this emotion by exceeding people's expectations." Twitter and Square co-founder Dorsey says, "We can consistently delight the world with all the information we can bring them."
The cynical observer would say that given how much most technology sucks, exceeding the expectations of people who've come to expect lousy experiences is setting the bar pretty low. But I'd leave that to the side.
Can you design delight? And is that appropriate?
Delight is one of those things, like friends or ease, that everyone likes, but is really more complicated than we think, and is easy to overvalue. Delight is a good thing to experience, but it's not enough.
First, exceeding expectations, or communicating to users that something is going to work perfectly, can evoke a variety of emotions, depending on the situation. Certainly there are circumstances where I can appreciate good craftsmanship, though often that should be an aside: a second's notice of the solidity of a steering wheel or sureness of handling shouldn't distract me from the road, nor should the qualities of a notebook or pen distract from what I'm writing.
Second, "delight" is nice but fleeting. Delight seems to be what you feel when served a beautifully-prepared dish arrives at your table. It's an immediate reaction. "Psychologists have a number of tools to measure emotions, such as observing pupil dilation or measuring changes in moisture levels on the skin," Intuit's Hanson notes. "More important, Hanson said, is whether customers use a product and say, 'Ooooooohhhh….'"
When I finished my book, I didn't feel "delight:" I felt the sense of satisfaction that only comes when you've worked at something for years, and it's paid off.
It's the kind of feeling you have when you graduate from college, or pass your prelims, or when your children achieve something great. It's something a lot more profound than the feeling you get when a web page has loaded delightfully fast, when search results are delightfully on-point, or when something else has exceeded your expectations. It's the deep feeling that you've been able to do something meaningful with your life.
Indeed, the pursuit of delight as an immediate short-term reward is exactly the kind of thing that really successful people avoid. Or at the very least, they're good at defining their own delights, and finding pleasure at things that require sacrifice and self-discipline.
Put another way, the sight of a serving of Triple Chocolate Decadence might inspire delight. The sight of the scale when you've lost 50 pounds will inspire a different kind of emotion that's more important to cultivate. I know. I've done both.
This means that when you're designing things that people use all the time, that designing for delight isn't sufficient. Designing for delight can reduce to "design for the sale," but not design for constant use. But it also means designing for a kind of human for whom first impressions are most important, and whose happiness is determined by constant dopamine-release responses to external stimuli, not by the cultivation of resilience or wisdom or accomplishment. In other words, designing only for immediate gratifications and instantaneous responses runs counter to a lot of what we know about what defines long-term happiness, and makes us complete as humans.
Not only is delight less enduring a foundation for psychological resilience or wisdom, there are circumstances where trying to achieve it would be totally inappropriate.**
If I'm being subjected to a medical test that is going to tell me whether I've got a year to live, nothing that a designer does is going to make me feel "delight." Nothing. The best you can do is produce something that isn't obviously frightening, and maybe subtly communicates that it's reliable; but forget delight. Likewise, designing a rape kit that looks like it wants to inspire "delight" would be pathological. It would be the design equivalent a friend telling you that their spouse has just died, and telling a joke. You might mean to make them feel better, but it's not going to work.
This is not to say that designers should abandon the idea of creating things that are delightful. It is to say, though, that delight should be the first of many emotions they to design for.
Not design, but design for. This is a small but critical distinction: it's the difference between heightening a feeling a user has, and manipulating a user's emotions. Partly designers are limited by the fact that our responses to objects and places will always be influenced by our prior experiences and perceptions. I can appreciate a place as beautiful as King's College Chapel, but it'll never mean to me what it means to someone who's genuinely religious.
Likewise, nearly anyone can appreciate a beautiful campus, but having spent nine years at Penn, a view like this will evoke a thousand memories:
There also a difference between adding a little more to an already-rich experience, and redirecting a user's experience away from the word and back onto your cool interface. You can't design delight, just as you can't design users or use contexts. You can't design contentment or satisfaction. You can design for all those things, and most of the time that should be enough.
If you want to create things that people will use all the time, you need to recognize that it's good make things that people will like, but don't work from the assumption that your users will always have happy, friction-free lives. Advertisements or promotional videos for Google Glass or Facebook Home seem to assume that everyone is always headed back to San Francisco from either the beach or the slopes, and is about to meet up with their friends for fish tacos and margaritas. But you also need to recognize that the device you create may be the one on which a user finds out that their marriage has collapsed, or that they're not getting that great job, or that the IRS would really like to know more about that real estate investment trust.
In other words, designing for delight should be the first step toward designing for humans.