What Does It Really Mean to Delight Users?

August 6, 2018

The field of user experience is rife with terms that lack a mutually agreed-upon meaning. Even the name of the field itself can vary depending on the communicator and the audience. Are we User Experience (UX)? Design Research? Human-Centered Design? Are all of these the same thing?

Often, this lack of clarity on terms leads to debates even among UX professionals about the meanings of certain terms and their appropriate use. Is user experience still the right term if it doesn’t involve a digital component? Where do you stand on the term design thinking? Which term is preferable: human-centered design or user-centered design? Does it matter?

As User Experience develops and gains industry awareness and acceptance across domains, we’ll inevitably engage in more terminology debates.

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Debating Delight

There is one term that I want to see UX professionals debate and dissect further: delight.

You’ve no doubt heard that effective design should delight users. To be clear, I am not arguing against the validity of this statement. I simply want the people who use this term—especially those new to the profession of User Experience—to put more thought into its nuances.

I’ve often seen people treat delight as a one-dimensional idea. This stems partially from the abundance of delight-focused articles that feature fun and flashy ideas. It’s fun to write about the delight that Disney builds into the visitor’s experience of their parks! It’s much less fun to write about the delight of in-context prompts that help users move competently through a form. The unfortunate result is that some people narrowly associate delight with the fun and the flashy because this is the word’s prevalent association. But delight means different things in different contexts.

One case in point is how we incorporate live chat in a user experience. Live chat functionality can seem helpful or intrusive depending on the mindset of the user at the moment in which the interaction occurs. Have you ever been bombarded with a live-chat pop-up box the instant you’ve landed on a new page? This is the modern version of Clippy, the not-so-helpful Microsoft Office paper clip. But there are instances where live chat can delight the user. As the creators of sites, apps, and experiences, it is our job to design each chat interaction so we get it right.

In this article, I’ll provide a case study about defining delight in the context of a banking Web site. I’ll also describe how our team drew inspiration from UX leaders TurboTax and Zocdoc and outline how my team used our definition of delight to guide design.

Identifying Delight in Context: A Case Study

I recently redesigned a complex financial form to optimize for funnel pull-through. In addition to the need for the form to increase conversions, the form was also a key brand touchpoint. Because banking is becoming increasingly automated, banks must rely on digital interactions to inspire the trust, credibility, and professionalism that used to be the purview of bank tellers. It’s no easy task.

If you were at the bank in front of an associate while filling out this form, he or she would walk you through the process, answer your questions, and ultimately, make sure you got through it. For the digital experience to be as successful, the form design itself must serve as that hand-holder.

Step One: Identify Key Moments or Interactions

My approach to designing this form was to first identify moments or elements of the journey that generate anxiety or confusion. By anticipating reasons the user may falter, you can design interventions and scaffolding to support the user through the journey. The three key moments where the users of our form would falter were as follows:

  1. Encountering technical, unfamiliar terminology made users feel uncertain.
  2. Navigating the lengthy form depleted users’ mental energy.
  3. Inputting personal, confidential information made users feel insecure.

Step Two: Analyze Analogous Experiences

Next, I identified some analogous experiences that involve similar frustrations and tasks that users would prefer to avoid: completing tax forms and filling out medical paperwork. I drew inspiration from companies who successfully delight users while addressing these concerns: TurboTax and Zocdoc.


April 15th is hardly an American holiday—it’s a day we dread. We expect to have to deal with long, complex forms and terminology that only Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) can comprehend. Plus, of course, there’s our fear of an audit and other negative repercussions if we make a mistake. But TurboTax has harnessed the power of design to build delight into this detestable chore.

TurboTax translates intimidating jargon into approachable, plain language. It protects users from the complex calculations that happen behind the scenes. It gives users confidence in their selections by indicating the most typical responses. It uses progressive disclosure and intuitive navigation to chunk the experience into manageable sections. All these design tactics reduce cognitive overload and build up user competence, resulting in a positive and delightful user experience.


Another experience that we’d rather avoid is scheduling medical appointments. We anticipate scheduling hassles, long waits, confusing insurance questions, and anxiety about finding a doctor who even does what we need. Zocdoc has modernized this experience with its stellar user experience.

Similar to TurboTax, Zocdoc brings the experience to the user’s level by using familiar, human language and providing an appropriate amount of hand-holding. Its friendly graphic design—in contrast to what users would typically associate with the serious, somber field of medicine—invites users in, while still conveying professionalism. Zocdoc anticipates users’ concerns and addresses them in context—for example, by providing user reviews, a map, and doctors’ availability for a next appointment. In combination, these features delight users by answering their questions and moving them through the experience quickly.

Step Three: Design to Delight

In the context of these less-than-fun tasks, we don’t achieve delight through what’s fun and flashy, but through helping the user feel prepared, competent, and confident. I used this three-pronged definition of delight to guide our financial form redesign.

  1. Prepared—We helped users feel prepared by previewing the process. We let them preview questions, told them what paperwork to have on hand, and estimated how long tasks would take—including what would happen after they submitted the form.
  2. Competent—We helped users feel competent by simplifying the process. We provided definitions in proximity to complex terms, added save functionality, and chunked the form into manageable subsections.
  3. Confident—We helped users feel confident by following UX design conventions. Breaking conventions pushes users beyond their comfort zone. Because these users are already primed to experience discomfort, we should break conventions only for a very good reason.

Once the redesign was complete, the form served as an adequate substitute for in-person, bank-teller assistance. It walked users through the process, answered their questions, addressed their concerns at moments of uncertainty, and provided additional support to prevent drop-offs.


This article serves as a reminder that good design should delight—even design that supports a formidable banking chore. We must always remain thoughtful about the nuances of delight. This kind of experience may not offer the same type of delight you’d experience on a trip to Disney, but it’s delight all the same.

I urge UX designers and researchers to join me in questioning clients about what they mean when they request an experience that delights the user. Delight should be a path to discovery, not another UX buzzword.

Assess clients’ understanding of and expectations for what delight means. Make sure they appreciate that delight does not necessarily mean fun and flashy. Will it sometimes mean fun and flashy? Yes! But the legacy of Clippy is a reminder that misplaced attempts at delight can turn good intentions into a meme. 

Senior Design Researcher at LiquidHub, a Capgemini Company

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Karah SalaetsKarah is a user experience research and strategy consultant in Maryland. She earned a BS in International Health from Georgetown, an MBA from Johns Hopkins, and an MA in Design Leadership from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Through a career that has wound through community health, occupational therapy, and special education, she knows that the best design starts with people. She works to advocate for user needs, while balancing business objectives and technical feasibility. Karah’s favorite question to wrap up a workshop: “Without explanation or followup, what is one word you’d use to describe how you’re feeling about this session?”  Read More

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