Delight. A dimension of human emotion, equal parts happiness and surprise, it’s a word used a lot in design. Designers are implored to create delightful user experiences. We are coached and directed to create user experiences that fulfill not just user needs but user wants and desires, experiences that transcend boundaries of the heart and mind. Experiences that knock your socks off. Take your breath away. Floor you. Render you speechless.
But our pursuit of delightful user experiences is limited, inspiring me to propose a theory: pinnacles of delightful user experiences are reserved for those experiences that take full advantage of all five human senses and the physcial world’s three dimensions.
There are Great User Experiences with Software, and then there are Great User Experiences with Everything Else.
Let me explain: in the grand scheme of experiences, there are Great User Experiences with Software, and then there are Great User Experiences with Everything Else: involving architecture, travel, food, our interactions with people and physical space. And the delta between the former and latter is vast.
To illustrate, imagine using your favorite app or piece of software. For me, that would include this very moment, writing on my MacBook Air in OmmWriter, my favorite writing app. It takes over the full screen, providing a chromeless, distractionless, quiet canvas on which my thoughts take form as words. It is a beautiful user experience indeed, but not one I’d write home about. Not one I’ll cherish on my deathbed. Not one I’d want recounted in my epitaph. Those types of experiences are reserved for other experiences entirely. Those Great User Experiences with Everything Else. Like the first time I stepped off the plane in France. Like each time I visited the Lincoln Memorial while living in Washington DC, chills running up and down my spine standing at the chiseled feet of Abraham Lincoln. Every. Single. Time. Like the gasp that escapes my throat when Mt. Rainier emerges glorious from a week of cloud cover during Seattle’s long, gray winters. Like every time I fly down a hill on on my bicycle. Pinnacles of delightful user experiences, I propose, consist of those experiences that take full advantage of all five senses and all three dimensions.
In the span of your lifetime, what do you consider the top five most memorable “user experiences” you’ve ever had and why?
To test this theory, I asked around. Of my family, my friends: “In the span of your lifetime, what do you consider the top five most memorable “user experiences” you’ve ever had and why? These can be daily experiences (riding your bike) or once in a lifetime experiences (visiting the Taj Mahal). It’s up to you.” What I discovered didn’t surprise me and supported my hypothesis. The most delightful user experiences, by a factor of 2:1 comparing the two most cited categories, involved physical transport: the relocation of the author through space and time via bike, car, aircraft carrier, skis, a chairlift.
In high school I was a mediocre athlete. I was one of those guys who always tried: tried to play football, tried to wrestle, tried to play lacrosse. I remember all those many sports contests of my youth because I was comfortably seated on the bench most of the time and was unencumbered by the distraction of participation. But the first day I climbed on my Puch, a racing bike, I realized this was a sport I could do. The bike’s 120psi tires allowed the bike to roll with seemingly little effort. Its gear shifters allowed me to change gears effortlessly, almost without any noise. It enabled me to climb the steepest hills I could find in Maryland and later in Vermont. I so loved the bike that it motivated me to train for and participate in bike races for the better part of a year. – Will
Traveling on the most amazing machine man has created. It’s pure freedom. My first bike when I was 6-7 was a red Murry. It probably weighed more than me. Since then a bicycle has always been in my life. I’ve been a commuter. I’ve been an explorer. I’ve been a racer. I’ll never be without a bike. – Tom
Somehow or other I have come into the possession of a mini-bicycle (used) that is about the size of a scooter. It has a chain and pedal and operates – more or less – like a large bike. I take it to a lightly used street across from our house and play around with it a bit. Suddenly and unexpectedly I am airborne – sailing down Prospect Street on wheels. I have a feeling of intense pleasure, joy-in-the-world, independence never before achieved. – Pat
Laying on the gas, accelerating onto the freeway in my Audi with the top down on a sunny day (regardless of whether it’s 20 degrees or 100). Same thing on my motorcycle. – Rob
When I was in the Navy, my first station was Treasure Island in SF Bay. I received my orders to Board the CV 33, an Essex class carrier named The Bon Homme Richard and we sailed for Pearl Harbor — My big thrill was sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge on the way to Pearl Harbor. – Uncle John
My Honda Odyssey: It is a true Mommy orgasm in the car department. Blue tooth, TV for road trips, huge space for all the carpooling I do, automatic doors all over the place. I would honestly buy this car JUST for carpooling. It saves me so much time. – Christina
Moving to Palo Alto, CA. The green, the green. Professorville. Affluence. Genius. Stanford. Hobee’s coffeecake. All the best food and drinks on the planet. Frost Amphitheater. Real, old hippies. Standing next to Steve Jobs with a kid on his shoulders at the May Fete Parade. Drinking wine with the founders of the environmental movement. Discussing revolutions with people who lived through them, sometimes, the ones who made them happen. Multi-culturalism at its best. – Debbie
I started downhill skiing when I was five years old, and despite not being the most competitive person by nature got pushed into ski racing when I was in middle school and high school. As I got better, my skis would get longer. This was the 1980s we’re talking about. I hit my peak height of 5′ 4″ probably when I was 13 or 14, and even though a ski chart I looked up says the ski length I should have be on is 163, I was skiing on 180s for slalom and 185s for giant slalom racing. That’s really tall for someone of my height and weight. I remember once when I was skiing really fast I crossed my tips and face planted and skidded down an icy trail that left me looking like I’d just been in a car wreck. Fast forward to the late 1990s/2000s and my introduction to parabolic skis: shorter, wider, curvier skis that are quicker and easier to turn and make skiing fun again. I can’t even describe the joy I felt when I demo’ed them for the first time. Never again will my skis drive me. I’m in control of my skis. Now if only boot technology would catch up and not be so goddamned painful. – Sue
Riding a chairlift. Feeling the weight of my skis and the muffled silence of snowflakes hitting my cheeks while suspended on a chairlift. Why? Being born in Colorado, snow and mountains are in my blood. Snowflakes are pieces of my soul, flitting about the atmosphere. There is also something exceptionally peaceful and yet exhilaratingly risky about being suspended over a void of white by a thin steel cable. – Callie
However, I think the maturation of the Internet of Things is going to change all this.
When initially pondering this idea, I had a hunch. A hunch that the most delightful user experiences involve not just two dimensions and our dominant sense, sight, but instead all three dimensions and five senses through which we experience the world, allowing us to move through time and space: touching, smelling, tasting, seeing, hearing. Based on my unofficial, qualitative research sample, I was right. Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to create delight in the software and systems we design. We just need to be realistic, realizing that our ability to create truly delightful experiences, in the grand scheme of things, is limited.