2 Secrets to Designing for Delight

Is “Designing for Delight” Worth It?

Bad is stronger than good. Psychologically speaking, bad parents, bad days, and bad feedback have bigger and longer-lasting impacts than good ones. In fact, it’s estimated that negative events weigh nearly 5 times more than positive ones (link will download PDF of study). This psychological phenomenon is called negativity bias. It holds that “people are much more likely to choose things based on their need to avoid negative experiences, rather than on their desire to get positive things.” Now, if all this is true, will someone tell me why companies have become obsessed with “delighting their customers” and “designing for delight?” Isn’t our time better spent preventing negative emotions, than trying to bring about positive ones?

Not always. On the one hand, preventing negative experiences and emotions often requires solving complex problems. And that means hours of salary and coordination. On the other hand, delight — when done right — lets us make a big impact by doing the littlest things. Simply put, delight is often a more efficient strategy; you can get more bang for your buck. These small, delightful moments are what I call the Big Little Things.

It’s your friend calling you the night before a big presentation to see how you’re feeling. It’s the auto mechanic who noticed your registration had expired and threw in an inspection for free. These small gestures build tremendous loyalty and goodwill.

But here’s the catch. While delight is often cheap and easy to implement, it’s difficult to implement well. So, in order to get it right every time, we need to hone in on some sort of repeatable formula for delight.

1. Be Surprising: Make the Mundane Memorable

I’m going to give you 2 imperatives of delight. And imperative #1 is, to be delightful you have to be surprising.

But what exactly is surprise? We feel surprised when we expect something other than what we get. That means surprise necessarily reveals something about the nature of our expectations.

These expectations come from our brain, and it turns out our brains are constantly forming them — forming these short term predictions. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert call this process “nexting.” Most frequently, your brain “nexts” correctly, but, as Gilbert writes:

“It is only when your brain predicts badly that you suddenly feel avocado. That is, surprised. See?”

When our brain predicts badly and we’re surprised in a negative way, you get emotions like confusion, disgust and terror.

“We’re going to have you read for ‘Woman Terrified by Dinosaur.’”

When our brain predicts badly and we’re surprised in a positive way, you get delight.

This dog’s brain predicted he was going to get only a nibble of that burger. (Source)

So, how do we identify opportunities to surprise our customers in a positive way? We need to understand and graph what I’ve deemed their expectation curve. An expectation curve is when your user expects to feel what.

This is a new lens of looking at your user. In product development, rarely do we think in terms of expectations. We prefer to think in terms of pain points. Often, we focus on understanding the customer journey — how they interact with a product over time — and hone in on moments when our user tells us they’re in pain. But not every opportunity to do something awesome manifests itself in an obvious pain point. What about the moments when our customers expect nothing from us? Or when they expect an experience to be bad, so they’re not all that bothered by it?

Not every opportunity to do something awesome manifests itself in an obvious pain point.

Take air travel for example. While a passenger may tell us the cramped seats are a pain point, they probably wouldn’t mention that the pre-flight safety video is boring and annoying because they just accept it as a necessary evil. Virgin America recognized this exact customer expectation, and saw it as an opportunity to positively surprise their customers. So, rather than having a boring ol’ safety video, Virgin’s video looks like this.

It’s a safety-themed music video that contains breakdancers, a contortionist, two rapping children, and a texting nun. Virgin got over 11 million people to watch this video without even setting foot on a plane. They did it by understanding the essential truth that “the least likely experience is often the most likely memory.” (That’s another gem from Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness.) So, if you want to delight customers, make the mundane memorable.

Virgin also understood that it’s not enough to surprise a user at the right time, you have to surprise them with the right thing.

2. Be Personal: Know Your Users Like You Know Your Best Friend

That brings us to mandate #2: to be delightful, you must be personal. That means knowing your users like you know your best friend. So, while you need to understand your users’ expectations, you also need to understand their personality, their tastes, hopes, fears, etc.

In this video, Kevin Hale, Partner at Y Combinator and Founder of Wufoo, gives a perfect example. He points to a simple text editor for Macs called Chocolat. Not much room for delight, right? Wrong. When the trial period ends, they display this message:

As a user, it feels like a surprising, personalized moment. It shows me that Chocolat recognizes that I have a sophisticated enough design sense to know that comic sans is an awful font (unless you’re selling lemonade or teaching kindergarten).

A Quick Case Study

In early 2014, Capital One (my employer) began to pilot a program designed to delight our customers. The premise was simple: empower call center agents to never have to say “no” to customers. 100 agents were given a stack of blank cards and told, “Whenever you feel a strong connection to a voice on the other end of the line, reach out to them. Write them a note — to say thank you, or I’m sorry, or good luck. And in certain cases, send them a gift. Anything is in bounds, as long as it’s personal.”

Here’s my favorite example: A Capital One customer, who we’ll call Danielle, had her Pandora bracelet stolen on a trip to Des Moines and called in to see if the theft might somehow be covered under her credit card. While the theft wasn’t covered, Danielle was surprised to receive this in the mail.

A nearly identical Pandora bracelet with a letter from the agent she spoke with saying “No one should have to go through what you endured during your trip to Iowa. Hopefully this is something to turn things around.”

Danielle posted this on Facebook received over 2,000 likes and 300 shares. Those numbers are on par with our most engaging Facebook posts from the official Capital One account. And how much did it cost us? Maybe $80?

But this isn’t an isolated incident. Over and over again, our customers shared their delight, generating favorable press and thousands of comments . We even turned our associates into salesmen because they were simply proud to work for a company that was doing awesomely human things.

Ultimately, we expanded this pilot, and now it reaches hundreds of thousands of customers every year.

So, there you have it. The power of the Big Little Things.

Pushing Delight to the Next Level

So far, Capital One’s efforts to be delightful have been inherently reactive — a customer comes to us with a problem, and we go above and beyond to solve it and delight them. But I’ve challenged my company to push things a step further. How might we proactively delight people? Rather than simply responding to the expression of pain, how do we anticipate needs, to provide our users with exactly what they need, right when they need it? I think the answer lies in a combination of human-centered design and data science. Using design thinking to uncover those moments of neutral or negative expectations, then using data science anticipate and act on them.

Ready for the the one-sentence takeaway?

To delight customers, understand your users’ expectations and personality, so that you can identify opportunities to be methodically surprising and personal.

Only then can you truly harness the power of the Big Little Things.


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Opinions expressed here are of those individual associates quoted, and not necessarily Capital One. Any third party companies mentioned or marks used are solely marks of those third parties.