The Gmail Moment — delight of the unknown

Like many people, my first email address was with Microsoft’s Hotmail. At the time, I didn’t really consider an email client as anything more than an interface by which to read and write emails. In 2007, however, I came across Gmail.

I haven’t told anyone this before, but I actually only signed up to Gmail because it was new and I thought it would make me cool. For my first couple of years of using it though, it might as well have been Hotmail — it was, for me, just an interface to do email.

This changed when I was applying for a part-time job as a 16-year old. I’d done everything I’d been taught, from the “Dear Sir/Madam” to the “Yours Sincerely”, and of course, the “Please find attached my CV”. I proofread it once… twice… dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s — it was looking good. I took a deep breath, and clicked ‘Send’. As I released the mouse button, though, it hit me —

I’d forgotten to attach my CV.

But before I’d even had a chance to say “Oh shi-” in my head, this came up:

Gmail had just saved my life. It really didn’t have to — it would’ve been perfectly reasonable for me to face the embarrassment of sending a 2nd email with my CV attached — it was my fault, after all. But Gmail was one step ahead, and it did something for me that I would never have thought to ask for.

It was this humble dialog box that made me think “Okay, this product really gets me”.

The question you should be asking

What does the user not know they need?

My ‘Gmail Moment’ was the result of someone asking themselves this question. I’d already known that Gmail had some nifty features — restoring deleted emails, archiving old conversations — but these were to me, at the time, entirely plausible features of an email client. It was certainly nice when I first discovered them, but I almost expected them. The dialog box that I saw that day, however, went a step further: I didn’t even know that I needed it.

As a bare minimum, a product needs to solve the user’s known problems — the things the user knows that they need. Most good products do this and they do it well, but it’s only in addressing the ‘unknown unknowns’ that products can create true delight.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — Henry Ford, allegedly

When a product reveals our unknown needs, we’re made to wonder how we ever managed to live without it. Because of my ‘Gmail Moment’, I’ll never be able to go back to an email client that doesn’t warn me when I’ve forgotten to attach a file. These moments change our expectations and shape what becomes the ‘norm’, and so building a delightful product is not a simple matter of a couple of tricks up one’s sleeve. Rather, it’s a continuous process of improvement, driven by empathy and a deep understanding of one’s users.

This empathy is what we’re all searching for — when I’m using a product, the thought that’s always in the back of my mind is “Does this product get me?”. The best products that I’ve used, the products I’ve found truly delightful, are the ones that know me better than I know myself — the ones that really get me.

Keep your audience in mind, stay one step ahead, and ask yourself — what does the user not know they need?


I hope this short post was useful. I’d love to hear about your Gmail Moments — please do comment below or tweet me @TaimurAbdaal, and if you’re interested, check out some of the stuff I’m working on: www.taimur.me.


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