Why delightful shouldn’t be a weasel word.

When talking about user-experience.

Everyone and their gran now seems to be talking about user-experience—or UX if you’re up on your jargon—but does dropping the ‘delightful’ bomb really reveal you to be a UX wannabe?

Larry Marine recently wrote a passionate piece on Search Engine Watch about the skills that separate real UX designers from wannabes. Obviously motivated through personal experience, Larry writes that the discipline of constructing user-experience is now high on the snake oil salesman’s menu.

“UX design was largely unappreciated for many years, but the rash of recent successes attributed to good UX design has helped UX become a desirable part of any website design effort. Unfortunately, opportunists quick to add UX to their repertoire of services are hoping that you won’t know how to differentiate their offerings from real UX expertise.” — Larry Marine, Search Engine Watch.

It seems UX is following in the footsteps of search engine optimisation and social media marketing as the must-have buzzword when going door-to-door selling shoddy online wares. Larry prefaces his post with the warning that he’s not pulling punches and I’m all for a little fisty-cuffs when it comes to getting in the ring with orators with empty pockets. If you class yourself as a UX expert or even someone who wants to enter into the field, then I urge you to test yourself against Larry’s 10 questions — it’s good to face the gauntlet sometimes.

However, this isn’t a post just to give Larry a delightful sense of warm satisfaction, I have a little slice of beef to bring to the table. Larry writes that if your UX candidate starts to spout the delicious idiom of ‘delighting the users’ then run for the hills. In principle I know what he means, but I felt the need to defend the usage for fear another—equally vacuous—pitiful patter will crop up in its place leaving us no richer.

When a casual way of explaining a concept gets the meaning sucked out of it then it becomes nothing but a weasel word — meaningless and mere rhetoric. However, if you first set-out your markers about what you are trying to achieve and only then ascribe the casual label of ‘delighting users’ then I can only see this being helpful when dealing with clients who find it valuable to have a familiar term to hook onto. When I work alongside clients I often set-out four simple categories their project could eventually be judged against—awful, purposeful, wonderful or delightful.

  1. Awful
    The site (or app) doesn’t perform the need of the user—despite how pretty it may be.
  2. Purposeful
    The site does what it needs to do and nothing more. The user doesn’t remember or differentiate the experience in any way but also has no negative feelings about it either.
  3. Wonderful
    The user consciously notes that they performed their task with ease and little effort. They openly report that this is better than other experiences they’ve had with similar systems.
  4. Delightful
    Something other than the main purpose draws positive attention from the user (without distraction) and forms a stand-alone memory about their experience.

For me, this has been useful to push both the client and ourselves to explore a little further when analysing tasks, even when we’ve achieved something that meets its objective. I remind everyone that we won’t always reach ‘delightful’, or even ‘wonderful’ on every task within the project, but be on the lookout for opportunities to raise the experience where we can. This goes beyond just helping the users succeed in solving their problem, this is stepping in with something that adds to their experience—often in tiny and unmeasurable ways. This is delivering the online equivalent of a member of staff remembering your name as you enter the restaurant—it doesn’t make the food taste any better, but it will give you a memorable experience beyond the expected.

If UX is only about helping people achieve their objectives then we lose the opportunity to make them smile, to gasp and to wonder what kind of magic must be at play. In an article for the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts’, ‘Native’ magazine, Ben Hammersley writes about how we are now uniquely placed to improve the lives of people through data.

“Take ticketing for example… An online ticket purchase requires a credit card, and that in turn requires your home address. It’s a matter of simple automation to take that address and augment the ticket or confirmation email with useful information. Here’s how to get to and from the venue from your address; here’s how long it will take given various public transport routes; here’s some recommended restaurants on the way (and here’s 10% off the bill of the pre-show menu).” — Ben Hammersley, writing in Native magazine.

This type of thinking is how we make a living and we should be striving to seek out the opportunities where we can inject ‘delightful’ into the veins of our digital projects — after all this may be the one thing that really differentiates the UX professional from the wannabes.