The dangers of delightful design –

How delightful details can get you into trouble

When you think of delightful things, you might think of things that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Stuffed animals. Cupcakes. Hugs.

But delightful things can have negative side effects. A silly joke can offend you. A clever ad can mislead you. A cute sound effect can drive you nuts.

In the world of design, we often praise delightful details. But as you’ll soon see, delightful details can sometimes get you into trouble.

Delight gets in the way

If you’re not careful, delightful details can hurt the usability of your product.

Morimoto, named after the famous Iron Chef Morimoto, is a great example of a website that clearly values delight over usability. Their desktop site tries hard to be delightful, but the delightful details make the site hard to use.

  • The initial buttons are tilted at 45° angles, making them hard to click.
  • Images shift around when you move your cursor, distracting you.
  • A music track automatically starts playing, whether you like it or not.
  • Menus animate in and out, making you wait 5 seconds after each click.
Morimoto’s epic website

Delightful details give you an opportunity to express your brand’s voice. They give life to your product.

But if you’re not careful, delightful details can get in the way. Like Morimoto’s website, too many delightful details can just get annoying. They slow people down from doing what they need to do.

Delight has a shelf life

To create delight, you need an element of surprise. Delight happens when you do something new and unexpected to make people feel happy.

I remember the first time I started up my Android phone and saw these spinning circles:

When I saw the circles magically morph into an Android logo, I was blown away. I thought it was the coolest loading animation ever.

After a while though, this animation got old and repetitive. After seeing it again and again, I no longer felt that same feeling of delight. It just wasn’t surprising to me anymore.

Delightful details lose their charm over time. Delight has a shelf life, and even the most delightful details can start feeling stale after a while. To keep things fresh, you’ll probably have to redesign the same things over and over again.

Delight is subjective

Ever come across an error message that tried to be fun and clever? It’s tempting to poke fun at a bad situation, but when someone is desperately trying to save their work or finish a task, a fun error message can come across as unsympathetic and insulting.

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.

Delightful or dreadful?

Even though your heart might be in a good place, you never know when you might rub someone the wrong way when you’re trying to be delightful.

Delight doesn’t scale

Delight gets a lot trickier as your audience grows. If you’re a smaller brand, you can often get away with using a lot of fun language in your product. But as your audience gets more diverse and global, it’s harder to be delightful to everyone.

Just compare the language used by large global brands (on the left) with the language used by smaller brands (on the right):

Microsoft Teams vs. Slack
Google Docs vs. Quip
Eventbrite vs. Splash

Notice a trend? In general, the language used by large global brands tends to be more straightforward and conventional, because it’s a safer choice for global audiences. Straightforward language is easier to localize and less likely to feel alienating.

The language used on the right side is definitely more fun to me, but it speaks to a specific kind of audience. If you feel like you’re not part of that audience, you probably won’t find the language delightful.

So when is it safe to be delightful?

By now, you can see how delightful details can sometimes get you into trouble. Designing for delight can be risky, but that doesn’t mean you should totally avoid it. The toughest part is just figuring out when to be delightful.

One thing I’ve learned is that it’s usually safer to be delightful on the screens that a user won’t see too often. For example:

  • When they first launch an app
  • When they finish setting up an account
  • When a new feature is introduced
  • When they complete an important action for the first time
  • When there’s an empty state

These are experiences that a user will probably only see once, so it’s easier to be delightful without feeling repetitive or annoying.

This is why you’ll often see delightful imagery in onboarding flows. Below is a recent example from Google Sites. Most of the UI is pretty conventional and straightforward, but in their one-time onboarding flow, they’ll surprise you with this cute illustration. Because you only see it once, it’s delightful.

Author: John Saito

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