Zak Slayback
Jun 20, 2016 · 9 min read

Product managers and designers like to focus on products that “delight,” when the bar should be higher and more concrete — going for gratitude. Gracious products are those that pleasantly disrupt our expectations.

Modern product management and design emphasizes the importance of delighting the customer so much that when a company says they want to delight their users, the phrase has become meaningless. The company doesn’t mean it to be meaningless — they imagine somebody using their app or product and being overjoyed when it works and not feeling annoyed or frustrated at a shoddy UI/UX or a product that doesn’t even load properly — but others listening to this just imagine another product manager or designer.

A quick Google search for “delight product management” yields over a half-million results in a third of a second. Most of the immediate results are along the lines of “5 ways to delight your customers” or “how to deliver delight and value to your customers,” but few emphasize the importance of definitions. When a word or a phrase becomes so overused you think it could be right out of HBO’s Silicon Valley, it may be useful to take a step back and ask oneself, “what are we really talking about here?”

Empathetic Product Design & Understanding Users’ Expectations

Putting the user first and trying to put oneself in the emotional experience of using a product is at the core of empathetic product design, an approach captured well in Jon Kolko’s 2014 book well designed: how to use empathy to create products people love. Kolko’s core approach is a combination of lean development —getting something to users and getting their feedback — and using behavioral insights to understand that feedback and respond appropriately. Its emphasis is the users’ emotional experience while using the product above all else.

And this makes sense. We respond emotionally to products like we do to books, movies, art, or anything else wrapped up with an experiential element. An app, website, or physical product should be no different. We begin to feel like the products around us have “personalities” that are reflected in everything from the font and colors that are used to the actual nature of the advertisements the company implements.

A good designer and a good product manager should be able to work together to sketch out how a product with personality feels. A good product manager will then be able to respond to how users actually feel while using the product and respond appropriately going forward — it is one thing to philosophize about how one color will make users feel one way or how another will make them feel another, you actually need to test ideas in the hands of the people you want using the product.

Uber ad encouraging Lyft drivers to switch to Uber.
Lyft ad encouraging Uber drivers to switch to Lyft.

The difference between Uber and Lyft is a good example of just how far products can differ based on some of these little elements. Lyft has more of a “feel” to it that is emphasized throughout everything in the app from the design of the cars on the map to the language used in the text message to the shape and color of the fonts in popups. The company wants users to think of it as fun and playful and almost more empathetic. Users are even encouraged to get in the front seat and talk with their drivers.

Uber carries a more professional feeling. The popular tagline, “everyone’s private driver” sends the message the company wants users to receive through the branding and in-app design: this is a sleek, professional way to get around.

This really comes through in the advertising between the two companies, especially when they go head-to-head for drivers.


Still, this isn’t particularly insightful or useful when it comes to figuring out what one means when they say that users should be delighted. It just means that people react to products emotionally.

The feeling of delight is a response to at least two things:

  1. Accomplishment of a stated purpose or end
  2. Excellent execution of this accomplishment

If you think of a product that regularly delights you through your use of it, you probably think of one not based on the personality or the feeling of the product in and of itself, but you think of the experience of the product just working very, very well. People are delighted by Uber on their first use not because the app has a great personality (it really doesn’t), but because they have a very clear and stated purpose to use it (“I need to get a ride”) and an excellent and easy way to have that accomplished (“I can just press a button and a car shows up outside of my house? How cool is that!”).

The feeling of delight comes from something working and working very, very well. It comes from building something people want and showing them that you can do it so well that they’ll be surprised by how well it works.

In fact, when you find a product that people really, truly love, they almost seem gracious for it. They’re not simply delightful over how well it works or how nicely it is designed, they would be upset if it were taken from them.

This is something worth looking into — not just saying, “design delight.”

The Emotional Core of Gratitude

Gratitude is a reactive attitude that one feels when expectations are positively violated. This is like a feeling of delight, but gratitude carries with it a more concrete locus from which it is reacting. Delight is more like an abstract feeling of surprise or excitement while gratitude is more akin to the opposite of resentment.

When somebody feels gratitude for a person or a service, they feel like that person or service not only fulfilled their purpose or obligation, but that they also went so above and beyond expectations that these expectations were actually actively violated.

This isn’t just surprise at something working well, it’s taking the status quo, the way people are used to doing things, and doing things so differently that people are pleasantly shocked by how it is done.

A product that generates gratitude is one that will actively resonate with an individual while it is being used. It will garner the opposite feeling that one feels when a product doesn’t work. That feeling, resentment, is a violation of the stated expectations of the product.

If a product says it will do X but fails to achieve that, users were expecting X and the product didn’t deliver, generating frustration and resentment. Imagine airlines. People buy airline tickets with the expectation that they will be landed at a location by a given time. After boarding, maintenance, and a general cluster of delays, this feels like it is rarely the case. People get frustrated and even hateful towards the airline (look at the twitter mentions for any major American carriers).

How to Figure Out What Generates Gratitude

Again, this may be fun to philosophize about, but from where does gratitude actually come when people use products?

If gratitude is a positive violation of expectations, then it’s important to figure out what users’ expectations are when building or developing a product and work to positively violate these.

But…how do you figure those out?

The intuitive answer is to poll people and design focus groups. But these are only so helpful. They may give you an idea of what people think they want and what they think they expect from products but people are usually wrong about this.

This is the difference between stated and revealed preferences, a basic idea in microeconomic theory. When polled or asked what people want, they will say one thing. When they have their skin in the game, they will choose something else. If you polled your neighborhood about what should be in the grocery store, people will choose a sub-optimal set of choices. If the grocery store gives them a large set of choices and then alters the set on each consecutive instance, then you get a much better set of choices. If you’ve ever gone grocery shopping and didn’t realize you needed something until you were there, you’ve experienced the difference between these two approaches to preferences.

Figuring out what expectations people have for products is the same way. You need to give people a set of choices and see how they choose their expectations when they actually have skin in the game.

The trick with generating gratitude is that you then want to violate these expectations. This is hard. This doesn’t just mean giving them a better version of what they already chose. In the case of Uber, that would have meant an app that hails taxis from your phone, which would not be nearly as joyful as an app that allows you to share a friendly stranger’s clean car with ease. The apocryphal Henry Ford quote goes something like, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse,” and captures the issue here.

So follow people’s current behaviors and expectations and look for what they are settling on. When people don’t particularly love a way of doing things but have no better options available to them, they are forced to settle. When thinking of Paul Graham’s “Build something people want,” think, “build something that won’t make them settle.”

This means you’ll want to ignore the competition beyond the idea stage, otherwise you’re playing by somebody else’s expectations. Generate your own and force others to play by the set of experiences you give to consumers and that using your product generates expectation-wise.

Presentation and Gratitude

To recap, quickly, find out what people’s current expectations about a product or service are by looking to where they have to settle. Look for things that are being done poorly or not at all and work from there.

You’ll want to make sure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot by setting up another set of expectations, though. You violate expectations not by setting the bar higher through marketing or sales but through experience. Recall the airlines as an example. Despite the fact that most people know flying is a pain and despite the fact that most people know there’s a good chance a flight will be delayed when they buy a ticket, most people are still frustrated and resentful towards the airline when these things happen.

Experience tells us that expectations should be that flights will be late and delayed, but the advertising of a particular time or set of services tells us to expect something else. It’s this something else, not the set of experiences, that drives people to resent the airlines. And maybe that’s just how that industry has to work. It would be hard to tell people, “Your flight will arrive between 6 PM EST and 8:30 PM EST” and expect them to keep buying tickets.

But not all products or services have to be this way. If you advertise every element of delight and expectation-shattering design and development in your product in the drive to generate sales or downloads and you can’t deliver on all of them, you’ll generate resentment, not gratitude.

Resentment is the death-knell of any product. It’s the product of negatively violating expectations. Somebody trusted you enough to download your app or buy your product because they thought it would do something for them and you wasted their time and money. You will have to work twice as hard to win this person back becaus you have to present an apology to them in this case.

Be cognizant of presentation and don’t shoot yourself in the foot in the drive to maximize downloads or early sales. Know that gratitude extends beyond the purchase or download period and have well-stocked customer service to keep up this process of positively violating expectations after somebody is already a customer or user.

If the IRS can do it, there’s no reason you can’t.

Further Reading:

Well Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love by Jon Kolko

Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will be Made, Not Managed by Alexis Ohanian

Kudos to a number of Praxis business partners for discussing with me their process of product development and management over the past few months. I wish I could say I was writing this out of years of my own industry experience, but it is theirs that I am riding on here.

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

Zak Slayback

Written by

Principal @ 1517 Fund, Author @ McGraw-Hill | Featured in Fast Company & Business Insider-

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

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