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Three Pillars of User Delight

Delight can be experienced viscerally, behaviorally, and reflectively. A great design is supported by all three of these pillars and is best evaluated with specific research methods.

Why does user delight often feel so elusive? Not only is producing delight a difficult task, but the threshold for “delight” can be unclear and subjective. Does “delight” mean that the user smiles? Laughs? Comments positively? While a clear criterion like that would certainly simplify things, delight is experienced in many different ways — not just from person to person, but one person alone can experience many different kinds of delight within a single moment.

By Therese Fessenden

In a previous article, I defined user delight as any positive affect a user experiences, and discussed how usability is a fundamental requirement for delightful (or, as Aarron Walter phrases it in his Hierarchy of User Needs, “pleasurable”) experiences. In this article, I further dissect this highest level of “pleasure” by defining different types of delight and offering recommendations for how to achieve deep, lasting emotional connection with an audience.

Pillars of User Delight

To explain the different kinds of delight, it helps to think of Don Norman’s three levels of emotional processing (visceral, behavioral, reflective), which he discusses in his book Emotional Design. Delight can be experienced at each of these levels. These levels serve as pillars for a comprehensive, solid, multi-dimensional approach to designing for delight.

Visceral Delight

Designs could be delightful at the visceral level: that is, they could have characteristics that instinctively spark positive affect, based on how we’ve evolved over time. For example, some studies indicate that people tend to respond positively when shown images with natural elements (e.g., mountains, trees, water) compared to control images or images of urban landscapes. While these images may have nothing to do with workflow design or usability per se, they do indicate that aesthetics and visual design play a role in positive perception and delight.

Behavioral Delight

Designs might also be delightful at the behavioral level. If a task was particularly easy to accomplish compared to the user’s expectations, that experience may build have positive affect toward the product — the user may be likely to recommend the product to a friend and become a return user, even if the reason has little to do with aesthetics. To use a metaphor: everyone has a favorite pair (or pairs) of shoes. While style does play a role in whether you would wear the shoes, it’s more likely that the pair is your favorite because it is stylish and comfortable. Even if you had the most stylish, high-end-designer pair of shoes, if they failed to be comfortable for more than 10 minutes, then it’s unlikely that you would wear them again. The same applies to interfaces. It takes more than a few soothing images to make a delightful experience.

Reflective Delight

Lastly, a design could also be delightful at the reflective level — meaning that it could appeal to a person’s sense of self, their personal values, and their aspirations.

Imagine you were supposed to choose between two nearly identical houses, both priced within your budget. Both have beautiful views of a lake (visceral delight), open layouts that allow for easy movement, and high capacities for storage (behavioral delight). However, one was built with sustainably sourced materials, and the other was not. Depending on what your personal values are, you might either 1) choose the eco-friendly home to align with your self-identity as someone who cares for the environment; or 2) you might choose the other home, considering yourself a practical buyer who cares more about durability and lifespan of materials. Both of these choices appeal to your conscience, identity, and aspirations as a person — the reflective aspects of emotion.

Delight Is a Three-Legged Stool

A two-legged stool cannot stand on its own. The stability of a stool depends entirely on the legs that support it. Even if it has three legs, if they happen to be uneven in size, the stool will be unstable, uncomfortable, and might even collapse. The same applies to delight.

Each of the three pillars of delight — visceral, behavioral, reflective — relates to different aspects of an experience: first impression, ease of use, and ability to align with users’ aspirations. Unfortunately, it’s quite common for designers to pursue “delight” by inadvertently focusing on only one or two of these pillars, rather than all three — with the result being a subpar experience.

For example, a design can have a great first impression and emotionally captivating copy, but be hard to use. Or, a usable design can align deeply with the user’s aspirations but fail aesthetically. In other words: a design may achieve some delight with UI embellishments, but will fail to achieve lasting delight if one of these pillars is neglected. This is due to the negativity bias: people default to remembering the bad more than the good.

Many models of user delight suggest that delight is monolithic and achievable only after certain criteria (like functionality and reliability) are achieved. While usability sets the stage for behavioral delight, it is not necessary nor sufficient for delight. However, when it’s lacking, delight is superficial. What distinguishes small-scale moments of delight (sometimes called surface delight) from deep, lasting delight is how comprehensively an experience appeals to all three of these pillars.

When done well, designing for deep delight addresses and accounts for the complex, systemic challenges around users’ experience, reduces friction, and enables users to achieve their goals or to even reach a state of “flow” — that is, immersed interest or productivity without much distraction from the main task. Thus, interaction design, service design, journey management, and customer-experience strategy all contribute to delight equally as much as visual design does.

The Key to Lasting Delight is a Long-Term Perspective

The stability and longevity of user delight depends on how well the interface’s defined function meets users’ deep, long-term needs. Unfortunately, long-term needs are harder to identify than short-term ones and are rarely the needs that come up in a list of design requirements.

For example, if the defined function of an application is to improve people’s level of fitness, then it will likely do just fine by providing some suggested exercises once a day. A design focused on surface delight might make the exercises fun to do once, but the chances are that the application will likely look a lot like many other undifferentiated fitness applications, with few opportunities for additional delight.

However, if the defined function of that application was to help people build healthy habits and self-confidence, then it could deliver so much more value in addition to the exercises: habit-building techniques, stress-reduction techniques, healthy, easy-to-cook recipes, and adjustments for people who have a hard time with suggested exercises.

These two functions are very similar, but “improve fitness” has a shorter-term perspective, while “build healthy habits and self-confidence” takes into account the a long-term, resilience- and habit-building challenges of pursuing a fitness goal. This long-term perspective increases the potential for longer-lasting relationships (and lasting delight).

Screenshots of the Street Parking fitness mobile app. Left screenshot features the apps primary features: daily workouts, extra programs, mobility and recovery support. Menu bar features: "train," "track," "fuel," "tools," and "account." Right screenshot features the "trophy case" which lists 393 logged workouts, 392 days worked out, and a number of achievement badges both earned and in progress. Under "Available" the app reads, "You're working on everything that's available to earn! Impressive time management skills..."
Street Parking is an at-home fitness program which tactfully uses surface-delight elements (fun microcopy and gamification techniques in the form of achievement badges and workout counters) to encourage building healthy habits. However, the company goes a step further by offering coaching tips for workouts, warmup and recovery suggestions, and community-oriented fitness and nutrition challenges — all of which are oriented toward long-term goals and likely to trigger deep delight.

It is important to note that even with the greatest designs, users are human, and as the saying goes, “You can’t please everyone.” Life circumstances, undesirable outcomes, past experiences, and expectations will all impact how people experience delight and whether someone could be delighted on any given day. Forcing delight when it isn’t appropriate — without considering the users’ current emotional state—will not only result in a lack of delight, it might also result in annoyance, anger, or even disgust. This doesn’t mean we should give up on creating positive experiences, but it does mean we should cultivate the positive affect that is most appropriate for the user’s current state of mind.

For example, if a customer is attempting to start an insurance claim on their vehicle after a harrowing, near-death automobile accident (or worse, where others may have been harmed), it might not be appropriate to loop a whimsical, upbeat, or playful song while they are on hold waiting to speak with a representative. To quote UX slogan #3, “You cannot impose joy.” Instead, a more considerate approach might be to not put the user on hold at all and offer a call-back option.

Ironically, the key to lasting delight is not to always look for opportunities to excite or entertain the user, but to look for opportunities to meet the user wherever they are in their emotional journey.

Evaluating Delight Over Time

Unfortunately, there is no shortcut or formula to creating delightful experiences. What might be delightful to one person could easily disappoint or annoy someone else. The key to resonating with your audience is to deeply empathize and understand their thoughts, concerns, and motivations.

Understanding emotions (and what causes them) is an inherently qualitative process, and as such, qualitative methods are necessary to identify and diagnose both pain points and moments of delight. However, it would be naïve to ignore the importance of quantitative data in understanding social sentiment. That said, not every organization chooses the appropriate sources or research methods to get accurate data about the emotional journey.

Below are some types of user data gathered by UX professionals and the extent to which they can be used to gather insight about whether a design causes delight.

Data source/method Do these gather accurate emotional data?
Contextual inquiry(observation with semi-structured interview) Yes. By having well-segmented participants perform realistic tasks on the designs, you can get specific, in-context emotional data.
Diary studies Yes. Particularly for long-term journeys or tasks which take a long time to complete, diary studies can provide insight to users’ perceptions, concerns, and expectations about specific parts of a journey.
Semi-structured interviews and custom surveys Yes, to an extent. Interviews can reveal insight to users’ values, beliefs, mental models, and lasting perceptions about a product or service. However, it’s best to pair them with observational data to validate any self-reported data related to emotional reactions.
Galvanic skin response (GSR) and facial electromyography (fEMG) Somewhat. These provide data about increased stimulation levels (increased heartrate/perspiration) and facial micro-expressions. These data points must be paired with real-time attitudinal methods like contextual inquiry or interviews to uncover why these responses happened.
Standardized questionnaires (e.g., NPS, CSAT, SUS, etc.) Somewhat. They can offer a high-level or general idea of customer sentiment and relationship to a brand. However, these metrics are very broad and reflect a variety of other factors; they will not offer specific, actionable data unless coupled with observational methods.
Focus groups No. Designs are not actually used during focus groups, and participants are often subject to being influenced by groupthink.
Analytics No. Clicks, taps, durations, and navigation paths provide information about behaviors, but offer no emotional context for those behaviors.

In short, if you want your users to experience meaningful, lasting delight, then don’t think about delight at all. Think about why you’re building that interface in the first place: what meaningful impact can you make for your users and how can you do that over as long a timeframe as possible? Then, use the right research to determine whether you’re on the right track.

This article originally appeared in Nielson Norman Group.

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