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Image of four iconic brands (Heinz ketchup, Campbell’s tomato soup, Hot Wheels, and Coca-Cola) with their trademark colours and unique fonts removed.

The Pandemic Ruined Customer Delight and That’s Okay

Marketers spent the last decade trying to turn mundane transactions into emotional joyrides. They failed.

Remember those March 2020 pandemic emails? Probably not. Because every company said the same damn thing:

  • A message to our customers about Covid-19
  • A message from Namecheap’s CEO
  • A message from AIR MILES regarding Covid-19

Meanwhile, every TV commercial used the same box of magnetic poetry:

  • During these unprecedented times…
  • During these unprecedented times, now more than ever…
  • During these unprecedented times, now more than ever, we’re all in this together.

All of that sudden brand blandness explains why, in April 2020, a few weeks into lockdown, my friend Patrick sent me PetSmart’s order confirmation email:

Screen grab of PetSmart’s order confirmation email with the subject line “Woot woot! We got your order.”
Woot woot! We got your order. Screenshots courtesy of the author

Woot woot? I’m trapped in my apartment, trying to stay alive. I paused my existential dread long enough to buy 10 pounds of dry cat food online. I don’t want *a* woot, let alone multiple woots.

The moment I saw that subject line, I knew delight was dead.

Many of you will be sad to learn that delight has left this mortal coil. Some might even dispute the coroner’s finding. But I’m glad delight is dead. It should’ve died a long time ago.

Allow me to explain.

Plain vanilla promises

Most people blame the Kano model for delight. It divides customer satisfaction into basic factors, performance factors, and excitement factors. Excitement factors address needs a user hasn’t yet considered — this is where surprise and delight were born. Excitement factors can be powerful, and they’re often seen as a key competitive advantage.

But with the benefit of hindsight, there are a couple of problems with delight. The first is that it’s difficult to measure extreme satisfaction and great pleasure. We haven’t invented a Wow-O-Meter, and Net Promoter Score has serious shortcomings:

Screen grab of a survey that asks “How likely are you to recommend Windows 10 to a friend or colleague?” The response given is “I need you to understand that people don’t have conversations where they randomly recommend operating systems to one another.”
I need you to understand that people don’t have conversations where they randomly recommend operating systems to one another.

The other problem is that delight doesn’t work.

In 2010, more than 25 years after the Kano model first appeared, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled: “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers.” After reviewing 70,000 customer support interactions, the authors discovered that “delighting customers doesn’t build loyalty.” Now, make sure you’re sitting down for this next quote:

“Loyalty has a lot more to do with how well companies deliver on their basic, even plain vanilla promises than on how dazzling the service experience might be.”

Ten years later, Lou Downe, the author of the excellent book Good Services, echoed that Harvard Business Review article. “In the rush to create something innovative, both old and new services often forget a user’s most basic needs.” The friction caused by missing emails or unclear explanations, “far outweighs any ‘magical’ or ‘delightful’ moments we might get from a small handful of services.”

Let’s recap: Delight is hard to measure. It doesn’t create loyal customers. And, most importantly, the theory of delight describes the physical world of human-to-human interaction. The Kano model debuted in 1984, a full decade before Netscape Navigator launched.

Oopsie woopsie

In a May 2018 tweet, Erika Hall argued that “Creating ‘delightful’ user experiences is actually user-hostile when it wrongly presumes that your customer wants to be emotionally involved with your service.” It’s painful to admit, but UXers aren’t artists or even graphic designers; we’re more like electricians or technicians. We spent the past decade trying to turn transactional digital design into a brand-infused, emotional joyride.

We failed.

Screen grab of a tweet from @cherrikissu that asks websites to stop giving error messages that say “OOPSIE WOOPSIE. The code monkeys at our headquarters are working VEWY HAWD to fix this!”
Can websites please stop the trend of “oopsie whoopsie!” error messages?

Erika Hall and Chéri aren’t the only voices of reason. In August 2019, UserOnboard genius Samuel Hulick noted, “People don’t use software to be delighted. It’s weird that UX has picked that as its primary intended outcome.”

Even if digital delight was a good idea, software isn’t designed to deliver it. As smart people like Sara Wachter-Boettcher have pointed out, delight in apps and websites is mostly hard-coded. Your first and your 25th order from PetSmart triggers the exact same email subject line.

George Orwell tried to warn us about this in his novel 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” He was only one letter away from getting it right:

Imagine a woot woot stamping on a human face — forever.

Popsicles and tech debt

The pandemic has been awful in countless ways. But if it eliminates delight, I’d be, well, delighted. As civic designer Dan Hon tweeted in April of last year, “If we’re lucky, 2020 will be the year whimsy finally dies as a prevailing tone of voice.”

Hon isn’t the first person to spot the limitations of whimsy. In 2016, John Saito argued that “Delight varies from person to person. What’s delightful to one person can be dreadful to another. There’s no such thing as universal delight.” And in January of this year, Amy Thibodeau put delight in the crosshairs:

“It’s slippery and subjective, cloying and often results in decisions to prioritize whatzits and quirk-a-doodles instead of meaningful change that would make an experience easier to use. Give me the utility of fast performance, predictable patterns, and good wayfinding any old day over the hollow affectations of delight.”

But due to the sunk-cost fallacy, delight won’t disappear quickly. Want proof? Check out this May 2019 defense of delight from UX advocate Jared Spool. He starts by talking about the popsicle hotline in the Magic Castle Hotel. You pick up the phone and ask for a popsicle. A few minutes later a butler delivers one.

Neato.

Except you can’t upload popsicles to your users, no matter how fast your broadband is. Applying a theory of physical delight from the 1980s to digital experiences is futile at best, dangerous at worst. We, as an industry, still can’t create a decent cookie consent banner. It’s sheer arrogance to think that our forms, buttons, and modals can evoke grand emotions in the hearts of our users.

But Spool is so blinded by delight that he believes a funeral-planning service should have some: “Helping the person planning the funeral get the word out, while minimizing the decisions involved, would be delightful if it exceeded their expectations for the planning process.”

Woot woot! We got your coffin order.

Please, I beg you, don’t make your funeral-planning app, service, or website delightful. Just make sure it works.

Now, I realize that kicking the delight habit won’t be easy, so here’s my offer. We’ve spent the past decade moving fast and breaking everything. Let’s take a deep breath and deal with all the tech debt we’ve accumulated. In case you’re not sure where to start, we’ve got:

  • privacy debt
  • racial debt
  • accessibility debt
  • inclusivity debt
  • gender debt
  • dark pattern debt
  • environmental debt

All that sludge means that millions of people have terrible experiences every day. Forget about extreme satisfaction and exceeding expectations — going from awful to meeting basic user needs would be a huge win. And once all that tech debt is eliminated, you can woot woot about funeral planning all you want.

Until then, delight is dead.

This article is based on my Interaction 21 talk. The generic brand images are borrowed from kunelgaur.

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