The Power of Positive Surprise

Taking the good User Experience to the next level

You probably all had your moments of positive surprise before, whether it is an exceptional desert in a restaurant, a free upgrade for your Honeymoon hotel or a simple feature just like Google map’s navigation not only telling you where to turn but also which lane to stay on.

As a user experience researcher, I got chance to see the impact of these positive surprises first hand. It is fascinating. I have aa memorable moment myself powered by positive surprise as well. It was 6 years ago, while I was on a business trip with terrible schedules (involves me getting up 4am) and not-so-successful customer engagement, my airplane company decided to gave me a free cabin upgrade because it was my birthday. I was pleasantly surprised and I remember that moment 6 years later, vividly.

The Power

Just like my own experience, positive surprise can be very powerful in connecting with customers in a deep, emotional level. When I interview people, it is so obvious when a feature or UI took participants by a pleasant surprise, their face light up, their voice got raised, eyes opened more and were clearly delighted.

It is also worth noting that, positive surprise not only has the power to reinforce a good experience, but also has the potential to sway a bad experience. has a great example in turning one negative moment in the user experience into an opportunity to inject humor and express brand identity. error page

The Content

Don’t let my example of cabin upgrade bias you, positive surprise does not need to cost much. Psychologist Norbert Schwarz once conducted a study to survey people’s satisfaction with life. A small manipulation of the study involving letting some subjects “accidentally” found a dime next to a copy machine. It turned out that a coin can significantly change the overall satisfaction with their life.

Put it into perspectives of user experience, positive surprise can be achieved by having ass-kicking features, but it can also be the result of simple micro-interactions. All the icons, animations, user flows, help content can be candidates for positive surprises. Achieving the positive surprise means you dare to innovate, to challenge the status quo, and think ahead of your users. You care for your users enough to go the extra mile for them. Not just give them what they asked for or expected, but providing additional content that they did not know they needed and package everything elegantly (the key is to provide unexpected value).

The Mentality

My designer friend once complained that it is hard to reliably generate positive surprise or systematically predict it. I feel her struggle completely and have seen tons of instances where the positive surprise for one person was not for the other. Similar to creating the “flow” status, in which people forget about time and focus on the present experience whole-heartedly, the way to create positive surprise is dependent on so many things that the designers have no control over.

Also, by definition, the positive “surprise” is more than likely irreplicable. What was the positive surprises from the first generation iPhone, became the norm now and the expected. Design innovations have to be constantly made to trigger additional positive surprises. In this process, designers need to keep customers in mind and provide value to them, otherwise, the positive surprise could very well becomes negative surprise.

As a result, I told my designer friend to shift the mentality and focus on the user value as best as she could and it is likely the positive surprise will follow. I believe in that the consumers will feel the quality of work that is put into the product and can tell good user experience from the bad. And hopefully among those deliberately thought-about designs, a few could take users by a pleasant surprise and generate that moments of delights. Those delights will make your customer satisfaction and loyalty go a long way.

Please let me know what your thoughts on leveraging positive surprises in UX design. What triggers me to write this article is that I have seen UX measured by many different metrics such as satisfaction, ease of use, etc. But I have not seen a robust way of measuring positive surprise objectively or subjectively. If you have any pointers on this topic I would love to learn from you!