From Satisfaction to Delight

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“As a field, I think we’ve already learned how to satisfy. But we’ve only scratched the surface of providing delight.”How many times have you heard this recently: “We want to go beyond satisfying customers, we want to delight them.” What exactly does that mean? How often do customers truly experience delight when interacting with a company, its products and its services? The answer, I suspect: not often. After reading or hearing “delight” referenced in company and product charters multiple times in a single week, I thought the idea deserved deeper consideration. As a field, I think we’ve already learned how to satisfy. But we’ve only scratched the surface of providing delight.

For the purpose of this discussion, I am both an experience design professional (one striving to delight) and a customer (one desiring delightful experiences). Personally, I am satisfied when an individual or business knows, understands and meets my wants, expectations and needs. But I am delighted when an individual or company goes beyond my needs and exceeds my expectations. In the world of digital applications and devices (where, after all, many of us live), my expectations are high, making delight a truly rare emotion.

Toward customer understanding
Humans interact with a product or service with an outcome in mind. We, as design professionals, have the means of bringing to life the concepts and systems that enable people to complete tasks and satisfy those outcomes. The process of creating potentially satisfying experiences is already defined. Using a breadth and depth of research and data collection methods, we are able to form a thorough understanding of customers’ wants, needs, tasks, perceptions and behaviors. Our photographs, recordings, drawings, collages, server log records, transaction records, registration data, call center logs and survey responses are the raw materials of their stories.

We synthesize this data into models, frameworks and matrices that tell the stories. We invent representative customers, give them names and histories and put them in modern-day contexts of interaction. These stories come to life via a project plan and the digital and physical products and services that result. During this iterative user-centered process, we categorize, prioritize, hypothesize and validate our solution, ensuring that it succeeds. At every step, we account for efficiency, feasibility and fitness. We predict a future interactive dialogue and then put a measurement plan in place to track, refine and continuously improve it.

Many of us have been on teams that masterfully balanced the art and science of acquiring customers, converting customers into buyers and retaining customers over long periods of time, succeeding in the face of fierce competitive pressures. Our industry has matured and, for the most part, we’ve gotten good at designing and building the right thing in the right way.

The next evolution of our interactive pursuits ought to be toward emotion, specifically delight. Beyond satisfying what humans want, need, desire or expect is the potential to inspire, to trigger creativity, intuition, discovery and spine-tingling emotion. Our technology-driven marketplace continues to encroach upon a point at which highlighting technology will be mute. The playing field will be level with all technology available to everybody. In today’s world of quantitative validation, desirability, perception and whimsy get the short end of the stick. In time, these may become our primary goals—the only points of competitive difference.

We’ve set the bar too low
At this point in experience design’s evolution, satisfaction ought to be the norm, and delight ought to be the goal. So how do we do this as experience design professionals? If the word “experience” is in your title or department, it implies you’re considering these issues. You’re planning and designing potential customer experiences—the interactions an individual has with your company, its product and services—at all times and in all places of awareness. You’re creating perceptions, setting the tone, building a relationship, and enabling dreams.

But the reality for many web users is this: simply allowing me to get something accomplished without encountering mental and physical barriers gives me pleasure. Guiding me to complete a task as I expected brings me extreme pleasure. Whether on the web or with the devices I use, my expectations are so low that merely encountering products that allow me to interact with them as I anticipated (or that match my mental model) exceeds my expectations.

Toward pure delight
Each moment of delight persists and contributes to a positive customer perception. Pure delight is the ultimate brand builder. The power of delighting on a regular basis is not to be underestimated. From $100 million box office weekends to high-priced vacations to gas guzzling luxury SUVs, our everyday experience is shrouded in escapism and physical pleasure. We strive for pure comfort in the Western world.

But in our day-to-day lives, we interact with companies, especially service companies, in a mundane, mechanical fashion. Consider a retail experience. I go into a store and try to find an item I need or desire. I’m approached by a sales associate, get help if I want it, decide to make a purchase, proceed to the checkout line, take my product and leave. Often, though, the styles aren’t to my liking, I can’t find my size, there’s no help, or the help that’s available isn’t actually helpful. The product is layered in decorative branded packaging, and I become a walking billboard. In two weeks, I get unsolicited catalogues in the mail because my address has been added to a list.

Delight in the consideration and purchase process is rarely in the picture. More likely, we find a mix of satisfaction and frustration. Delight can still exist in my enjoyment of the day-to-day wear of the garment I purchased. In many cases, we suffer through pre- and post-purchase disappointment to enjoy the daily use of a product or service. Satellite TV service, automobiles, daycare, home internet service and air travel come to mind as experiences that are fundamentally satisfying in use but contain a periphery of annoyance and inconvenience.

Now imagine a company whose core values and brand platform are based on respect for each individual customer, with an undertone of fanatical courtesy and general admiration of its customers. My interaction with that business would be designed with me and for me at the same time. Its products and services would be empathetic to my every state, yet would challenge me at just the right level, exploiting my capacity for insight, curiosity and perception. This company does not push unwanted products and deals in front of me, nor does it force a change in my behavior. I’m recognized when I enter the store and am led to what I desire. My needs are met, and through the course of my interaction I’m presented with something unexpected but captivating. The company is a trusted friend, one that inspires, enlightens and challenges me when appropriate. The emotions I feel when interacting with this company would compel me to engage further. Does this sound like any company you know? It’s a stretch.

Things to consider when planning a delightful experience
Much to my satisfaction, the consideration of good design applied to our everyday experiences has become widespread across diverse industries, disciplines, corporations, governments and consultancies. Along its evolutionary path, experience design has adopted various tips, techniques and best practices from fields as disparate as anthropology, theater, psychology, linguistics, library sciences and art. Much of experience design’s success is the result of remaining grounded in fundamental business principles—brand, channel integration, usability and customer service, to name a few. The field has reached a point where success stories are recognized and many companies value user-centered solutions. I often say that providing processes and solutions that result in the measurable satisfaction of customers ought to be the “cost of entry” into the field. These should be the minimal expectations of companies and clients today.

Today’s interactive solutions should, at the very least, deliver:

  • Brand consistency, translation and extension into people’s lives.
  • An integrated, seamless experience of all interactions with a company, whether online, on the phone or in a store.
  • Ease of use in all interactions.
  • Establishment of success metrics with rigorous measurement and validation.
  • Opportunity for a personal relationship that continuously evolves.

We should also strive to delight customers regularly, to achieve a higher plane of customer connection. This is potentially accomplished when a company:

  • Demonstrates that it knows and understand me.
  • Anticipates my questions and provides satisfactory answers without my needing to ask them.
  • Communicates with me using a heightened degree of respect, tolerance and empathy.
  • Maximizes my capacity for insight, curiosity and perception, creating the desire to engage.
  • Recognizes connections or relationships of value to me.
  • Provides pleasant surprises.
  • Intelligently personalizes my experience based on my past needs, behaviors and purchases.

Are these the outcomes we aim for when we say that we strive to delight our customers? Admittedly, recognizing opportunities to delight and then designing those potential experiences is difficult. It requires a deeper immersion in and understanding of the lives of those we design for and with. The dimensions of consideration are vast and the opportunities exist in the details, swimming between tasks and personal desires. Performing task analysis, defining behavioral models and understanding wants and needs are the foundation. Mining, correlating and modeling a multidimensional context, which may include physical environment, activities, pressures, mindset and goals, is where the clarity and connections of surprise and delight reside.

And just like striving for satisfaction, designing for delight requires rigorous measurement and validation of the intended outcome. Success is recognized in facial expressions, body gestures and, if you’re lucky, words. “What just happened there?” “Oh, I see what you’re doing. It’s not obvious, but I get it.” “I didn’t think that could be done, wow.” “Wow” is a dead giveaway.

I dare you to set delight as a success metric on your next project. Recognize and craft only one opportunity and then, on your customer satisfaction survey or user interview, inquire as to its presence and frequency. Imagine if all of the companies with which you interact during your lifetime each provided you one genuine moment of delight. Let the revolution begin.

Parrish Hanna is Director of Experience Planning at Semaphore Partners. Previously, Parrish served as President of HannaHodge, a groundbreaking user experience firm that he co-founded in 1998. For over a decade, he has spent the better part of each week planning better experiences for humans and refining the process to do so. He jumps at the chance to write and speak on issues related to experience design.


  1. “As a field, I think we’ve already learned how to satisfy.”
    “The process of creating potentially satisfying experiences is already defined.”
    “Much to my satisfaction, the consideration of good design applied to our everyday experiences has become widespread…”

    Great sound-bytes, good copy, but is there any evidence at all to support these statements? None that I can think of, unless the author concedes that most design is so incredibly bad that people (both designers and users) have learned to lower their expectations accordingly. Otherwise, it just reads as declarations of victory oblivious to the actual defeat.

    No, the design profession has not learned how to satisfy (at least not in a meaningful way). No, there is no reliable and effective process. No, good design is not widespread. These are major problems in the design profession that will not disappear just by wishing them so.

    There are well-known (and well-researched and proven) methods to make people feel satisfied, even delighted, that have little or nothing to do with providing them with useful products, valuable services, or informative writing. Since anyone, regardless of qualifications/education/experience/skills, can take on the label “experience design professional” (and probably fool others into believing it is a meaningful label), each of these individuals has a choice to make: Will I learn how to create a truly quality solution, will I instead manipulate others to believing I have produced a quality solution regardless, or will I just delude myself into thinking I am producing a quality solution?

    Intentionally or not, by dismissing major problems in the design profession, the article appears more supportive of manipulation and delusion.

  2. “Our technology-driven marketplace continues to encroach upon a point at which highlighting technology will be mute. The playing field will be level with all technology available to everybody. In today’s world of quantitative validation, desirability, perception and whimsy get the short end of the stick”

    I think Parrish has been watching a little too much MTV and not enough Discovery Channel. The technology gap between upper, middle and low-income America is gaping enough, not too mention the enormous technological disparity between developed and underdeveloped countries. It is highly unlikely that all technology will eever be available to all people.

    I suggest we stick to the fundamentals until Parrish’s prognastications come to fruition and continue to design user experiences that facilitate end user access to the information they need the most. The key to successful Web site design isn’t sophistication and whimsy, its simplicity. Until we begin finding that our users are calling for more of Parrish’s short end of the stick, the best way to delight them is by meeting their needs.

  3. Do we need everything to induce “delight”? Is that a reasonable goal, or is that just a manifestation of what I think you correctly identify as the Western obsession with escape?

    Not that I think we’re in any danger of actually achieving this, but I would find a situation in which *every* one of my interactions with a product or service set out to delight me a little exhausting, and ultimately cheapening of that very precious concept.

    I would settle for a world in which everything worked the way it was supposed to.

  4. Man, I’m still working on designing things so that users can choose the correct item from a list, or understand how to correct an error they’ve made in a form submission, or can find the correct piece of data in a table more than 75% of the time.

  5. When I do an online transaction, I don’t expect bells and whistles. I’m “delighted” when an online transaction happens smoothly and is hassle-free. We are in danger of creating more clutter and diverting users off-task when we create more for the purpose of “delight.”

  6. Delight should absolutely be a goal of our design work. And I don’t believe it takes “escapism” or “bells and whistles” to delight our users.

    For example, my main work is on an engineering development environment for industrial automation. Our recent release includes an SFC editor (a graphical machine-state language) that delights our users because of how well it accomplishes and exceeds it requirements – in meaningful ways that support their work and extend their thinking. Bells and whistles? No. Better than anything else in the industry – or than anyone expected? Yes. Delightful to use? Yes.

    Of course, there are still bugs and compromises, but it didn’t take more effort to delight than to “meet expectations.” It just took design skill and user understanding. Delightful experiences can be CHEAPER to implement, because you do things EXACTLY right, and only those things.

  7. Wow. I’m surprised this article has received such a negative reaction from B&A readers.

    I don’t believe the author is claiming that *every* online interaction must be “delightful” — that each click must result in an “a-ha” experience, or that each page that loads must feature something surprising. Rather, I think he’s simply suggesting that by including even *one* delightful experience among the many (hopefully at least non-frustrating) general experiences of a site can go a long way toward making the visitor happy.

    And, ultimately, aren’t we, as information architects and designers, supposed to be striving to make people (users, customers, clients) happy? Simply satisfying people’s needs doesn’t necessarily accomplish that. We may have a long way to go to achieve a universal minimum level of satisfactory online experiences, but once we achieve that, then what? Isn’t providing delight a good thing to reach for next?

  8. Example of delight:
    I wrote a simple email to Washington Mutual Bank through their website regarding a problem with my bank statement. The problem was corrected within the next couple of days. All without having to remember to call them during business hours, being put on hold for 15 minutes, having to listen to some long-winded phone menu and then speaking to a customer representative who may or may not posess a decent IQ level. My reaction was ‘Sweet, I didn’t think anyone would read that email’.

  9. I guess that kind of speaks to my point, sorah.

    If our standards have fallen so precipitously that a commercial enterprise responding to an inquiry appropriately and with a modicum of timeliness causes “delight,” well, then, sure: delight me.

    But I would hope that would describe a minimally-acceptable baseline of service, rather than the extent of our ambition. And I would be well chuffed to see the majority of my transactions (Web and otherwise) meet even minimal standards. The trouble is that they don’t, not by a long shot.

    (I’ve been reminded of this rather acutely by my discussions over the last couple of days with folks in the ubicomp community, who are aiming at insinuating computation into whatever crannies our lives can afford them. I couldn’t help but feel that, with the Web as wretched an experience as it is, we have no right to be taking things a further step towards pervasiveness and intimacy.)

    Like I say, I think we *all* have a long way to go before we can speak of delighting people.

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