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Why Delight Is A 4-Letter Word In Design

In web design, cute and clever flourishes quickly lose their charm if the user experience is anything less than perfect.

The human decision-making process relies on feelings and emotions instead of logic–a good case for designing for delight. Don Norman explains how humans evolved an emotional mechanism for making split-second decisions, that instantaneous feeling of fear from seeing a snake made our ancestors run away even if logic said it was unnecessary, and that emotional decision may have saved their lives. Likewise, the delight generated upon seeing our loved ones reinforces relationship bonds, which has its own advantages for survival.

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While modern humans no longer need to run from snakes on a daily basis, those instincts are firmly ingrained. That means users will feel a closer connection with a website that delights them than one that’s useful but boring.

Delightful quirks work great for promoting your site’s personality. A cute mascot, playful word choice, game-like interactive elements, or fun sound effects can all instill excitement into an otherwise dull design, not to mention set you apart from your competition. They can be the exact flourish your design needs to complete itself, as long as you recognize where it fits into the grand scheme of user needs.

The Place of Delight
A design should be delightful. But it shouldn’t only be delightful.

Rather, delightful elements should be the icing on the cake. To better understand the role of delight in web design, let’s look at Abraham Maslow’s , published in 1943 to prioritize the basic human needs. Aarron Walter, writing for the Treehouse Blog, applies these needs to web design.

A pleasureable experience makes up a large chunk of the “hierarchy of user needs,” so delightful interactions are not completely disposable. But in the grand scheme, pleasure is the least important element–it’s only a concern after the functionality, reliability, and usability are satisfied.

Delightful elements are not quite an “extra” factor (no one wants to eat a cake with no icing), but they’re not quite one of the fundamentals. They exist somewhere in between “necessary” and “nice.” But the problem arises when designer overestimate the value of delight and center the whole process around it. As Glenn Gould once said, “Never be clever for the sake of being clever.”

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Delightful design is only a problem when it gets in the way. Looking back to Maslow’s pyramid, once all the fundamentals like usability are firmly established, you’re free to be as charming and cutesy as you like, as long as it doesn’t undermine the more important elements.

In his Co.Design article “Hey Designers: Stop Trying to Be So Damn Clever,” Randy J. Hunt of Etsy lists out the most common ways that delightful design impedes a website’s more practical purposes:

Incongruency with personality. Depending on the site, more casual elements can undercut the seriousness of the message, much like wearing jeans to the office. Sure, some sites benefit from a lighthearted and casual tone to break the mundane professionalism, but not all. Staying true to your own message is more important than a potential smile.

Misapplication. Gestures, patterns, and creative word choice are all good things, but only when used correctly. An overzealous application of them can lead to confusion and usability issues.

Confusing titles. We see this all the time. Sites say something like, “Great, let’s go!” instead of simply “Submit,” which leads to momentary confusion and hesitation. It’s fine to add some personality, but always ask yourself if the interface feedback is clear enough to guide a total novice. If not, stick with the basics.

Unnecessary features. This is a problem not just in web design, but in product development the world over. To get an edge over their competition, companies will release “improvements” that are byproducts of HIPPO egos. In a bid to then compensate for core usability issues, delightful design easily becomes an undeserved crutch. Instead, try conducting usability tests first to see if there’s something useful you can actually improve.

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“Our Fair Share of Hipsters.”Flickr user Christopher Michel

Delightful design is not a chance to live out your faded dream of being an entertainer. It’s not a license to pat yourself on the back for your own wit. Delight, like all other aspects of design, serves a specific purpose with specific parameters, so don’t overstep those boundaries.

Writing for Co.Design, John Pavlus tears delightful design apart for similar reasons. He calls it “superficial,” as the “delightful” features are geared more towards cosmetic than actual usefulness. He chastises designers’ exhaustive efforts to predict the things he’ll like, in a way that seems almost pandering. But he also brings to light an important point about delightful design: surprise.

At the core of delightful design–the useful kind–is surprise. When users first see a reward, read a joke, or find a discoverable, it sparks that good feeling that designers wish to recreate. But a large part of that is the surprise, to say nothing of the uniqueness. Excessive delightful elements kill that; they make these experiences common, and then expected. Delightful design elements work best as treats, but of course you can’t eat chocolate cake every day.

Familiarity vs. Individuality
One of the biggest arguments in favor of delightful design is that it showcases the site’s individuality, which is undoubtedly a good thing. But again, moderation is crucial: focusing too much on individuality can distract from thinking about usability and usefulness first.

Familiarity is a tool just as powerful as individuality. In 2012, Javier Bargas-Avila posted an eye-opening article on the Google Research Blog about a study on how users form that all-important first impression. The results showed clearly that users favored familiarity (as well as simplicity). All other factors being equal, users will perceive familiar sites as more beautiful than less familiar sites.

In Bargas-Avila’s own words: “Designs that contradict what users typically expect of a website may hurt users’ first impression and damage their expectations.” Social media sharing tends to work with that same “herd” mentality. Users will think twice about sharing something too different than what they’re used to, simply out of fear of what their friends will think.

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Perhaps the greatest advantage of familiarity is in usability. Implementing well-known UI patterns saves time in explaining functionality, plus gives your interface that comfortable “intuitive” feel, letting first-time visitors feel they’ve used it before. You can even get creative about your use of patterns to show your individuality, as long as the core features follow the “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable” principle.

But you won’t get far just doing what everyone else is doing. In an article for Train of Thought, Kelly Hobkirk points out that how familiar or individual your site should be depends on the size of your market. The more competitors you’re facing up against, the more individuality will set you apart. In a battlefield where you’re struggling to carve your own niche, familiarity may do more harm than good.

The Right Delight
The best delightful designs are the ones that improve the product overall. They’re not just present for flair, they add something to experience as a whole–the way icing improves the taste of the cake.

Duolingo, for example, adds a natural element of delight through gamification. Unlike some language learning apps that feel strictly academic, Duolingo lives on the exact opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Colorful, cartoonish, and even featuring an owl mascot, Duolingo allows you to earn “Lingots” (in-app currency) as you progress in your language. You can then redeem the currency for challenges like timed quizzes–it sounds boring, but the execution is so charming that it’s actually fun.

More importantly, the interface is friendly, inviting, and stupidly simple to use. It strikes just the right emotional chords for someone who has finally taken the initiative to finally start learning a new language.

The further you iterate your designs, the more you need to consider (and reconsider) how the whole experience feels. It’s easy to get lost in Dribbble-ized visuals, but never forget the purpose of design is to present information in a way that helps people accomplish goals.

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Usability is your entrée and delight is the sauce. Add just enough delight to make the functionality memorable, then get out of the way and let the product speak for itself.

This excerpt from the forthcoming ebook Desmystifying Delightful Design was published with the authors’ permission. Download the entire ebook for free on July 7 here.

About the author

Jerry Cao, Kamil Zieba, and Matt Ellis work at UXPin, a UX design platform co-founded by Zieba.

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