The down­side of de­light

Sara Wachter-Boettcher ex­plains why pri­o­tis­ing de­light in your de­sign process means let­ting your users down

net magazine - - CONTENTS - Sara (@sara_an­n_­marie) runs a con­tent strat­egy con­sul­tancy, and co-au­thored De­sign for Real Life with Eric Meyer (

Sara Wachter-Boettcher on why cre­at­ing de­light should never be your pri­or­ity

I took a friend from out of town to a res­tau­rant in my neigh­bour­hood the other day. She has coeliac dis­ease – the real-deal au­toim­mune dis­or­der that makes gluten at­tack her small in­tes­tine. Eat­ing out is stress­ful; some places as­sume she’s just avoid­ing carbs, or that a lit­tle bit won’t hurt. They’re wrong.

My friend hates both­er­ing staff, so she doesn’t go to new places much. But here she is, across the coun­try, trust­ing me to lead her right. I’m anx­ious to find a good meal that won’t trig­ger her ill­ness. She asks the host a bunch of questions: What’s safe? Are you sure about the sauces? Can you prep my food sep­a­rately? They’re pa­tient. They’re confident. They’re kind.

We’re told there’s no gluten-free dessert, but we don’t mind. Then, out of nowhere, a dish of home­made ice cream ap­pears. It was de­li­cious. But it wasn’t what made that

meal mem­o­rable. It was ev­ery­thing lead­ing up to it: all the small ways my friend’s needs – needs most of us don’t have – were treated as valid and worth­while.

That’s the thing about de­light: it’s a won­der­ful feel­ing, but a ter­ri­ble goal, be­cause you’ll only ever get there if ev­ery­thing else has al­ready gone well. Restau­rants fig­ure this out fast, or they fail. But on the web, we’re still stuck on it: Inspire and de­light! De­light is the key to UX! Add de­light to your de­signs!

It sounds good. Who wouldn’t want to leave their users grin­ning ear to ear? But the re­al­ity is less rosy. By laser-fo­cus­ing on de­light, we’re fail­ing real peo­ple.

When de­light fails

Re­cently, JAMA In­ter­nal Medicine re­leased a study ( that looked at how smart­phone AIs like Siri and Cor­tana han­dled cri­sis sit­u­a­tions, such as a user ask­ing for help with do­mes­tic vi­o­lence or rape. The short answer is they didn’t. In fact, they of­ten cracked a joke in­stead of at­tempt­ing to look up the in­for­ma­tion.

I’m sure the en­gi­neers at Apple meant well when they loaded Siri up with jokes: they wanted to make it fun and per­son­able. But that de­sign direc­tion only works when things are go­ing well. If a user is frus­trated or un­der stress, it feels insensitive, and it’s not help­ful.

Once you start look­ing for mis­placed ‘de­light’, you find it ev­ery­where, from the cutesy Face­book fea­ture that wants you to ‘See what your year looked like!’ – and then shows you a pic­ture of a dead loved one – to Microsoft’s chat­bot Tay, which started out hav­ing light con­ver­sa­tions with teens, and was im­me­di­ately trained by trolls to ha­rass women and praise Hitler.

Just an edge case?

When I wrote about that JAMA study a cou­ple of months ago, more than a few peo­ple told me that no one would use Siri that way – and any­one who does is an id­iot and de­serves what they get. We can do bet­ter than blame our users.

Karen McGrane has said, “You don’t get to de­cide which de­vice peo­ple use to ac­cess the in­ter­net: they do.” This is the same. You might not un­der­stand why some­one would use Siri dur­ing a cri­sis, but that doesn’t mat­ter. Apple gave them ‘an in­tel­li­gent as­sis­tant that helps you get things done just by ask­ing’, and they’re us­ing it.

The real prob­lem is that Apple never thought about tasks like these. Across our in­dus­try, de­sign teams are trained to fo­cus on best-case sce­nar­ios; happy users achiev­ing de­sired out­comes. That’s nor­mal. Of course we want peo­ple to have a won­der­ful time with our prod­ucts. But some­times, they won’t. They might be de­pressed. They might be in pain. They might be hav­ing a full-fledged ugly-cry­ing pub­lic melt­down.

In other words, they’re hu­man. Our job isn’t to judge them or push them away. It’s to help them get things done – and treat them with re­spect while we do so. In my book with Eric Meyer, De­sign

for Real Life, we call sce­nar­ios like these ‘stress cases’. A stress case is some­thing you put at the cen­tre of your work – a lens you use to see whether your de­ci­sions hold up un­der pres­sure.

Try it out. When­ever you find your­self imag­in­ing happy users con­tent­edly click­ing around, pause. Ask your­self, ‘What if some­one in the op­po­site sce­nario used this prod­uct?’ Would it work, or would it make them feel un­wel­come and un­sup­ported? It’s not com­pli­cated or re­source-in­ten­sive. All it takes is a lit­tle less ‘de­light’ , and a lit­tle more com­pas­sion.

De­light is a won­der­ful feel­ing but a ter­ri­ble goal, be­cause you’ll only ever get there if ev­ery­thing else has al­ready gone well

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