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Why designing for delight doesn’t always work

| May 10, 2016
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Delight is one of my favorite words. It captures a feeling most of us probably wish we had more often. So it’s no surprise that CX folks are somewhat obsessed with the concept of delighting customers. After all, who doesn’t like to be delighted? What could possibly go wrong?

And therein lies the point. As Murphy’s Law holds, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. So why is it that so many companies plan for the best, but are woefully ill-prepared for the worst? While it’s obviously much more pleasant to imagine delighted customers, the reality is that eventually something will go wrong—either with the company or the customer—and delight probably isn’t going to help anyone in that situation.

Of course, the goal will still be about getting the customer what they want and need. But by taking delight out of the equation and considering what the customer might be going through, you’re much more likely to build trust and loyalty with customers.

But given the fact most of us strive to please our customers it might be tough to get into the mindset of considering the alternative when designing an experience. If you really want to impress your customers, stop focusing all your energy on delighting them, and consider where your customer is at rather than where you want them to be.

You don’t know your customer

No amount of research will tell exactly who each individual customer really is. Sure, you can get a sense for the personas that interact with your product, but that doesn’t mean you can take a one-size-fits-all approach to all your interactions with them. Pleasing everyone all the time, however, isn’t feasible (or scaleable) so you’ll have to find some middle ground.

If you layer in some empathetic thought with your design process, you’ll quickly discover areas where you might unintentionally upset or frustrate your customers, when all you were trying to do was ‘delight’ them.

Take Facebook’s Year in Review feature as an example. It’s been written about a lot, following an unfortunate incident in which Facebook promoted the feature to a mourning father, including photos of his recently deceased 6-year old daughter. While Facebook’s intention was to delight, the result was devastation. Why? Because the company was so focused on creating joy, that they forgot that there’s another side to consider, too.

While you can’t plan for every situation, there are a few steps you can take to make sure you’re not trying to delight when you should be empathetic to your customer’s needs.

1. What’s your customer’s emotional context?

Understanding the context in which your customers will be interacting with your product is an important step in the design process. But more often than not, companies think mostly about the physical context. Will my customer be on a train or in a car, commuting to work? With they be at home on the couch, or in the office?

But what about the customer’s emotional context? As the Facebook example mentioned above highlights, it’s important to consider what your customers might be going through before rolling out a new product or feature.

For example, recently I needed to send a sympathy bouquet for a family friend who’d passed away. I felt terrible that I couldn’t make it to the memorial service, so I wanted to express my condolences to the family with some nice flowers.

Yet when I scrolled through the “sympathy” section of the site, I found several cheerful arrangements for birthdays, births, and other celebrations, mixed in with the somber, sympathy-themed arrangements. I cringed when I saw the caption underneath this bouquet.


It’s easy to see how this happened. The same flower arrangement could be used for many different occasions. But the copy that accompanies the image is of context for other categories.

How to avoid it

When you’re designing your product, campaign, or copy, it’s a good idea to consider what your customer might need, rather than what you’d like to give them.

Here’s what I mean. In the example above with the florist, they company was trying to promote a product by adding targeted copy that would, presumably, catch the eye of anyone sending flowers to their mother. But if the company had considered where the customer might be coming from, it would’ve been easy to see how that copy might sting someone who’s grieving the loss of their mother.

One way to manage this is to conduct a content audit on a regular basis. This will be a big project the first time you do this, but after that, tracking and updating your content will be a breeze.

2. How can your message be misinterpreted?

Most companies probably don’t set out to intentionally offend or upset their customers. But it happens all the time. The marketing, advertising, or social media team starts out with the best intentions. They craft a clever message that’s on brand and they think will resonate with their audience. And moments after the campaign hits the internet, they realize that their brand is trending on Twitter, but not in a good way. That message they thought was so clever, happened to also be pretty offensive if misinterpreted.

That’s exactly what happened to The Economist. The magazine’s market research had shown that women weren’t subscribing as much as men, so they decided to include some promotional materials in an issue that was intended to inspire more women to subscribe. The result was quite the opposite.


Source: The Economist, via NY Magazine, The Cut

While the folks at The Economist probably intended to delight its female readers with a bold, progressive statement, they didn’t consider that maybe that message could be misinterpreted—especially if they only read the first panel.  

How to avoid it

There’s no magic formula to ensure you never offend anyone, but you can alleviate most of the risk by asking one simple question: How could this message be misinterpreted? But simply asking that question isn’t quite enough. You need to take that message and test it in the real world, outside your office walls and cut off from your curse of knowledge.

3. Is customer service an issue?

A while back I ordered a few items to take on a last-minute vacation and didn’t have much time to spare before I left. Usually, Zappos does a great job of delighting me with fast shipments, easy returns, and clever copy on all their communications. But in this instance, their efforts to delight did anything but.

My package had been delayed several times. I contacted customer service asking for updates and explanations. While the company’s responses were speedy and somewhat helpful, there was a casual tone in each of them that felt canned and insincere.

At this point, I was frustrated and anxious—my flight was just a few days away. I emailed customer service once again for an update. I wanted answers and the chance of them delighting me were fairly slim.

Yet that’s exactly what they tried to do. Their email response to me opens up with a light-hearted, clearly templated introduction. On any normal day, I probably would’ve thought this was charming, but given my situation, it only frustrated me more.


The email is three paragraphs long, and only one of them has anything to do with my order. The rest is talking about football, which I don’t even like. By the time I finished reading the email I was annoyed and still had no clue when my order would arrive.

I appreciate Zappos’ attempt at human-centered copywriting here, but what they’re missing is the probable context this message originated from. They already knew there were some issues with my service, yet they still attempted to remain upbeat.

I certainly was not feeling very upbeat about the situation, and their lack of empathy wasn’t helpful.

How to avoid it

There’s no quick and easy solution to this challenge, but the guiding principle is to always be empathetic to the context of your interaction with your customer.

Customer-facing employees should be encouraged to use templated responses sparingly—especially if the customer has made repeated requests recently. Additionally, this is one time when humor and levity might not be the best tactic.

Continual user research supplements delight

While designing for delight is a great goal, it’s important to consider the worst-case scenarios as well.

Whether you’re developing a new product or service, marketing collateral, product copy, or even an email campaign, be sure to test out your product and messaging on an unbiased third party. Remote user tests are a great way to do this quickly and easily. Within just a few hours you’ll know if you hit the mark, or if it’s back to the drawing board (and avoiding disaster).