How mobile UX designers can create experiences that delight

Bradley Carrera
  • Bradley Carrera
  • September 29, 2016
How mobile UX designers can create experiences that delight

In the last few years, “delight” has become a buzzword in the world of digital product design and development. For some, a delightful user experience entails going beyond efficient functionality by adding a level of fun, excitement, beauty, and novelty into digital products. In contrast, other users are delighted by an emphasis on streamlined utility. These individuals find satisfaction in a UX that accomplishes whatever task the digital product is intended to facilitate in a timely and effortless fashion, even if that means the process is devoid of any frills or beauty. Because users have such divergent expectations of what a digital product’s user experience will deliver, we wanted to explore the value of both sides of the coin to gain a better understanding of ubiquitous yet often-ambiguous user experience best practices.

Somewhere between the late 1990s and early 2000s, the way usability testing was employed shifted. While teams were previously performing usability tests only in the latter—and often latest—stages of development, around 2000 teams began to perform usability testing as early as possible, and we saw the trend accelerate as they continued testing throughout the course of product development. Designers and developers alike quickly realized that taking an iterative, research-based approach to better inform their decisions led to higher quality and more successful digital products. The transition to informed iteration through usability testing also reduced the necessity of costly post-launch alterations. As Jakob Nielsen noted all the way back in 1993, “It has been found that 80% of software lifecycle costs occur during the maintenance phase and were associated with ‘unmet or unforeseen’ user requirements and other usability problems.”

Aside from a positive impact on ROI, this was a very important step in the evolution of user research, shifting the emphasis away from a sole focus on usability and instead towards a focus on overall user experience. Fast-forward to 2016, and it’s no longer good enough to just be usable. Digital products are now expected to seamlessly integrate into users’ everyday lives. Apps and websites are now expected to not only get the job done, but also to make users happy, predict their future needs, and respond accordingly. So, back to our big question: what does it mean to create a “delightful” user experience? As Ben Rowe explains, “Delight isn’t just a simple, single, one-dimensional thing. It’s much more complex, with many aspects and varying levels of delight that form a delightful experience.”

Take Uber as one example—is the delightful thing about Uber that there are cute little animated cars that move around on a map? Or does Uber delight users because at 3 a.m. they can quickly locate a driver and get home safely? Or is it the combination of kitsch and efficacy that equates to a delightful UX? Although the small animated cars do respond to a cognitive need by giving the user information about how many drivers are around and how far away their ride is, would those cars be worth creating if it took the development team an inordinate amount of time, and therefore a great deal of money, to create that small element of the experience?

What’s really delightful about those adorable little animations is after the order for an Uber has been placed and accepted, when the user can see the exact distance between their current location and the car they’ve requested, something that could accomplished by small dots or other less sophisticated placeholders. A further value the animated cars provide is that they intuitively indicate to the user which direction the car is heading, allowing them to contact their driver before he makes a wrong turn down a one-way street. But the kind of delight that users receive from Uber isn’t solely a result of what the user sees, but rather the entire experience of viewing the animated cars, requesting the ride, receiving a notification when the car is approaching, and being able to quickly and effortlessly perform the entire transaction without removing cash or a credit card from their pocket. Rather than a single feature or visual detail, Uber is able to delight their users by seamlessly solving a problem in a simultaneously enjoyable and efficient fashion.

Uber’s cars offer value by signifying location and direction, and so the visual flourish is valuable not only to users who find them cute, but also to users who want information about where their car is.

Pleasantly surprising users with little extras such as attention to detail, unexpected animations, expedient processes, or simply a momentary feeling of joy are all a result of designing for delight. Although there is no simple recipe, if the user finishes an experience feeling like they’re better at completing whatever action or process a given digital product is intended to facilitate, those users will come back to the product and likely spread the word to their peers. Alternatively, if attempts at delight ultimately result in a bogged down experience in the name of unnecessary frills, quite the opposite will occur.

Recently, a major ecommerce website promoted a limited-time offer with tiny sale tag icons that appeared next to products on the main page. Although it was difficult to notice at first, the tags swayed gently as if a virtual breeze was blowing on them. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, that small animation might bring a momentary smile to users’ faces, and it’s details like those flags that contribute to the overall look and feel of a digital product—something that designers are paid to consider. But the initial novelty and delight that users might find in those flags is ultimately short-lived—many un-delightful things can occur as a result of purely aesthetics- or “wow factor”–driven attempts at UX delight.

For example, if the little moving images add even one second to page load time, or create bugs in the overall flow of the site, or don’t work across every browser and breakpoint,, then that initial smile turns into substantial feelings of frustration. The big takeaway is that something may be fun and engaging the first time, but not necessarily the second or third time. When the user is trying to get something done, how much does that small visual effect add to overall feelings of delight? The most important question is, “does this piece of delight end up encumbering what the user came to the site to do in the first place?” Uber’s cars offer value by signifying location and direction, and so the visual flourish is valuable not only to users who find them cute, but also to users who want information about where their car is.There is certainly a place for beauty and fun in design, but if the goal is just to make a product beautiful without deeply considering the “experience” part of UX, then delight needs to be considered in broader terms. Even if a digital product has the most gorgeous user interface ever created, if it doesn’t get the job done, it’s going to fail.

Designing and developing delight seems to be an amalgam of art and science. To create a truly delightful UX, regular research into who our customers are—and what’s important to them—is an absolute necessity. Although empathy is always important, equally important is knowing when, where, and at what level to apply just the right amount of delight. As it turns out, delight is actually more about the user than it is about the product. Delight is about helping the user become better at the thing they’re trying to do, or to find enjoyment in completing that process regularly. The more a digital product assists a user become a better version of themselves, the more likely the product is to result in delight for the user. Samuel Hulick eloquently breaks this idea down: “People don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves.” If an animated car that haphazardly finds its way to my curb represents a better version of me, then sign me up.


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