Delight is the glue between data and engagement

Brendan Ward
Nov 6, 2017 · 12 min read

“Fareless” read the sign on the side of the bus as it passed by me this morning. Just think about how much more delightful it would be with a slight rearrangement: “Fearless.” Imagine this as the start of your day. “Put your fears [not fares] in the machine as you board” and off you go, fearless. Lurking in plain sight is the opportunity for a subtle shift that can move the everyday experience to something novel.

Humans have been creating pictures of data for millennia. We use pictures of data to communicate with others and contribute to shared knowledge. As we move further into the digital age, we use pictures of data to connect with more people than ever before, but across a greater divide.

Cave Paintings, Magura Cave, Bulgaria (Marie Brizzard)

I have a hunch that bringing delight into the tools that share pictures of our data can help us more effectively engage with our audience.

Delight: (something or someone that gives) great pleasure, satisfaction, or happiness. — Cambridge Dictionary

Delight allows us to move beyond enabling them to passively consume information. It can capture their attention, encourage them to connect more deeply with this information, better leverage our tools to meet their needs, and make more informed decisions. As tool builders, we create tools to be used, and we know that users are more likely to use tools they enjoy.

Delight is an emotional experience. Through little sparks of joy embedded within our tools, we can inspire a sense of hope and help our audience move beyond the negative emotions sometimes attached to conservation topics. It can also make our content more approachable, because they are able to form a relationship with the interface between themselves and the data.

What can lead to delight in data visualization?

Since delight is an emotional response, we need to move beyond impartial presentation of the data to a more narrative, engaging experience for our audience. Much of the recent work in user experience highlights a few characteristics of designs that lead to a sense of delight:

  • effective and consistent use of colors and imagery
  • simplicity of presentation (this is one of the most important)
  • animations and other micro-interactions that give immediate feedback to the user
  • novel presentation of information (but not too novel)

Numerous articles have been devoted to these topics. See UX Planet or for excellent resources and ideas on user experience design in general.

My team at the Conservation Biology Institute creates tools to communicate science and inform decisions that impact natural resources. These tools focus on heady topics like climate change, threats to biodiversity, and regional conservation planning. We use data visualization — a fancy term for pictures of data — to make the data more accessible and visually interesting to others.

Like many others, we struggle to make those tools delightful. In part, the topics don’t normally lead themselves to delight. These topics often lead to feeling partly responsible, guilty, or in denial. Imparting delight ends up being a pretty big stretch. The data do not directly connect with our audience at an emotional level. We need something more in our toolkits.

Historically, we tended to avoid emotional engagement with our audience when creating visualization tools. This is because:

  • creating charts is relatively easy and well understood; there are many tools available for displaying quantitative data
  • creating charts that connect emotionally with the user is hard and is not well understood, and often relies on artistic rather than logical process
  • emotional interactions may be perceived as subjective attempts to influence opinions rather than objective communication of data
  • our budgets don’t often permit us much leeway to pursue emotional engagement per se so we don’t often prioritize those tasks as highly

Multiple themes emerge here: gaps between the skills and resources available and those that would lead to deeper emotional connection, and gaps between impartial data and human interpretation.

Our need for precision gets in the way of delight

As scientists, we are taught to be honest and just state the facts. The problem is that data — the facts — do not tell a story that is easily accessible to others. We have to tell the story with those data. However, we hesitate to interpret those data to make them more accessible to general audiences. We are concerned that if we are less precise, we are more likely to contribute to flawed conclusions. Unfortunately, when we prioritize precision over accessibility, we create a barrier when it comes to creating delight in our data-oriented tools, and we lose the opportunity to more effectively connect with our audience.

For example, we often create tools to show future climate projections from a suite of global climate models. We use charts heavily to communicate trends shown by those models. We usually label the future trends based on the name of the model, which is usually a hodgepodge of letters and numbers: CanESM2, MIROC5, and CNRM. While this allows us to uniquely identify a particular model’s results, it is far from approachable to someone who is not a domain expert.

One approach would be to create labels that summarize the overall trends, such as “hotter and dryer” or “hotter and wetter.” The problem with this is that it lacks precision and isn’t always correct. A model that is overall “hotter and dryer” across a large region may be significantly wetter in some locations than today. It creates a bit of a paradox: how can something that is generally true be locally false? This paradox can undermine perceived credibility of the data or the interface used to display the trends.

I’m not sure what the right approach is in this case. We do not want to create paradoxes that undermine credibility or make it harder for users to understand the information. However, unless we can make the building blocks of our data visualizations more approachable and easily understandable, we are going to have a hard time moving on to the next level, which is inspiring a sense of delight.

How do we add delight to our tools?

My hunch is that in order to make data more accessible, we need to form an emotional relationship between the user and those data. One of the things that separates tools that we use because we have to from the tools that we want to use again and again is the experience we have while using those tools. I think we can create an emotional experience without compromising our objectivity. In order to achieve this, we need to focus on a few key things:

  • make sure that we meet real needs
  • assess and reduce the barriers to interaction and interpretation
  • find the spark, the small interactions that change how a user engages with the tool
  • enable and empower discovery
  • simplify, simplify, simplify!
Photo by 贝莉儿 NG on Unsplash

Meet the needs of the audience

Someone engages with one of our tools because they need it to meet one of their needs. Maybe they need to visualize and interpret information about conservation priorities in a particular region, or maybe they need to track the status of a population of rare plants over time. Maybe they need to learn more about a particular topic. Either way, if the tool does not meet their needs, they have very little reason to engage with it. Thus the first step in adding delight has to start with making sure the tool meets those needs, and delivers value in return for their engagement.

Assess the user experience

We cannot create a feeling of delight if our tools are hard to use, clunky, awkward, or non-intuitive. These aspects all need to be assessed, and corrected first. Often when we create something, we think more is better: more detail, more data, more flexibility, more more more. But these usually get in the way of making something more intuitive.

It is hard to build a mental model of something — to transform it from what you see to what you understand — if there are simply too many things competing for your attention. Some of the worst offenders are tools that require you to make an informed choice before showing you anything useful. This may work if you know everything required to make that choice, but in our domain, this is very rare. As tool designers more broadly, we force users to either guess, take a detour through help text, watch a training video, or get stuck and frustrated. We may excuse ourselves for this result by thinking that we can’t make those choices for our user. We address this shortcoming by adding tooltips, guides that popup as you interact with the tool, or increasingly long and complex documentation. Unfortunately, this leads to yet more things competing for the user’s attention.

We need to learn how to communicate better with a fraction of the detail, and require far fewer up front choices. Flexibility can be incorporated, but shouldn’t drive the main experience. Give power-users their advanced options, but don’t make everyone use those in order to use the tool.

Photo by Soner Eker on Unsplash

It can be helpful to assess barriers in a tool by using a workflow or user journey map. First, identify the primary goal for the majority of users. If this is something outside the tool (often the case), but is dependent on a last step in the tool, make sure to identify both. Then identify the starting point. Assuming the user needs to get from the start to their goal, identify each decision point along the way. Determine what information the user needs in order to make that decision. Will they always know the answer? If not, how will they get the answer? You can even treat this as a game, which makes it even more fun during a team brainstorming or critique session.

Given the list of decision points, you can look carefully at the route to determine how to make the path from the start to the goal as easy as possible. The dominant route should be the happiest path. You can reduce decisions by moving advanced options to a different route or by choosing sensible defaults. You can be the helpful local guide in a foreign country, and help guide the user’s choice, or help them understand the choice — in their language.

For a given topic, find the spark

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

This spark can be a compelling image that leaves a lasting impression, a feeling. Sometimes this is as simple as linking up photos of different plants and animals to their associated data in the tool. A picture of a fuzzy critter is sometimes much more accessible and interesting — and delightful — to our audience than its scientific name. It also helps reinforce an objective within the tool, which is to help users better understand the connection between a plant and animal, and a given location.

The meditation app Headspace uses creative reinforcement of a primary objective very effectively. Their objective is to help users meditate. Much of their user interface centers around a “play” button that slowly pulses and changes shape at about the same frequency that you are supposed to be breathing while meditating. Not only does this give you something to focus on while trying to start a meditation session through a semi-hypnotic effect, it also leaves you with a feeling of delight. It is much more engaging than a simple, static play button.

Micro-interactions use the same approach. They are very small visual elements that give immediate feedback to the user about an action, often through animation. They are a deliberate, engaging, and unobtrusive way to reach out and engage the user’s attention. See more:

Mockup of a sidebar to show future climate projections for a national park.

The spark can also come from a deliberate attempt to reach out to our audience and help them understand by sharing a tiny narrative that helps explain the data in terms that our audience will understand. The example on the left could be improved by using more relatable terms. For example, a 1.2–2.1° C increase is roughly the same as the difference between a normal human body temperature and a moderate fever; 3° is closer to a severe fever. When we are talking about average temperature across a year, it is fairly abstract and hard to gauge the amount of change. When we talk about fevers, we can easily remember how that feels.

Enable discovery but provide a guide

Photo by Ahmad Kadhim on Unsplash

Many people have an explorer hidden within them. For some, it is overt: they blaze their own trails, and they probe at our tools to find all the features on their own. Others are a bit more reserved in their approach. They might be intimidated by too many choices at the outset. They might enjoy discovering new things, but they need a guide.

You can provide an upfront guide, to help ground the user and prepare them for discovery. If you just got off the plane in a foreign country, you would appreciate it if your local contact person outlined the itinerary and helped you mentally prepare for your upcoming adventure. This guide should focus on helping your user understand the context of the data and how your tool will help them reach their goals, so they can focus on exploration once they engage with your tool.

Explorers prepare thoroughly before they begin exploration. Delight your users by helping them feel prepared when they start using your tool.

Once a user is exploring, you can reinforce this delight by providing a subtle nudge in the right direction. It is hard to appreciate a walk in the woods if you are constantly worried about getting lost or scrambling over logs, whereas a trail lets you enjoy the experience and still get to where you are going. Likewise, within a software application, the primary user journey should be easy to find, and supported with unobtrusive visual cues. These can be constructed in a way that makes the tool suddenly seem more approachable. I’m not talking about the normal gimmicks: functionality tours that explain what without why or how, popup help, or Clippy.

Instead, I mean a subtle user interaction that indicates the way ahead. Perhaps this is a gently pulsing button that encourages navigation to the next step. The space archaeology app GlobalXplorer uses this approach to help engage and train people in their crowd-sourced satellite image interpretation platform. These visual cues can help guide the user from one major step to the next, in the same way that trail markers provide affirmation that you are indeed going in the right direction.

Simplify. Then simplify some more.

The best tool designs help reinforce the route to the primary goals. A great example of this is Medium. Through a highly simplified, distraction-free interface, and carefully chosen font, Medium makes it delightful to write articles such as this.

You should focus on simplifying the entire experience. This includes reducing the upfront choices required before the user can engage. It also includes eliminating visual and functional clutter. One way to approach this is to think about a visual budget: each visual item costs the user’s attention. You can even think about this budget using the analogy of a jar, rocks, pebbles, and sand (normally applied to priorities and time management).

  1. You can only fit so many rocks in the jar, which means that you have a limited number of large (attention-wise, not size) visual elements that can fit in your design. You can fit proportionally more of the smaller elements only at the expense of the larger elements. A tool that does too many small things but does not do one thing very well (a rock) is not a very good tool.
  2. If you fill your design with sand first — several seemingly small but low value visual elements — you are unable to fit the rocks in, which means that you need to focus on the large visual elements — the rocks — first.
  3. Once you have identified the high priority large visual elements, you can add supporting visual elements (the pebbles), and even smaller visual elements (the sand). The catch here is that each subsequent addition fits around the gaps in the larger elements, and supports them to create a more holistic experience. You do not just fill the jar with small things because you can.

In closing…

If we can inspire a sense of delight when using our tools, we can better capture the attention of our audience, encourage them to connect more deeply with this information, better leverage our tools to meet their needs, and make more informed decisions. Through a focus on streamlining our tools, assessing the user experience, we can create deliberate sparks of joy that help form an emotional connection with our users. With that joy, we can turn a humble tool, such as a hammer, into an object for creating and discovering new things.

Brendan Ward

Written by

Lead software engineer & owner of Astute Spruce, LLC. I build intuitive, compelling applications for science to create greater impact.

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