“Delightful” Interaction Design Needs To Die

Trying to mass-produce delight is like forcing waiters to wear 37 pieces of flair on their uniforms. Enough!


I just noticed something delightful about one of my iPhone apps. Gmail Inbox, which was designed according to Google’s new Material Design visual language, shows a disc-shaped button hovering in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. When you’re thumbing down through a thread of messages with multiple recipients, the disc contains a discreet little backwards-pointing arrow icon signifying “reply all.” When you reach the tail end of the thread, the disc morphs into a text box and the little arrow icon divides itself into two separate arrow icons: one for “reply to” and one for “forward to.” The division is subtle, fluid, and elegant, like a cell undergoing mitosis.


In other words, it was exactly the kind of “delightful detail” that the Material Design guidelines explicitly call for. Such details, according to Google, “serve dual functions: to inform the user and to imbue your app with a moment of wonder and a sense of superb craftsmanship. Users do notice such small details.”

Yup, I did notice it. I sensed its craftsmanship. And I didn’t particularly give a shit. It has nothing to do with how and why I use Inbox on my phone.

Here’s what I do care about RE: Inbox’s design and craftsmanship: it’s fast. I can download, launch, configure, and start meaningfully using the app in 30 seconds with just four taps. (Yes, I timed it.) In practice this means that I can install the app on demand, quickly accomplish some email-related task, and then delete the app until the next time I need to use it.

Why would I want do such a thing? Well, I don’t like to have an email app permanently installed on my phone because I find it too difficult to resist mindlessly checking it all the time. That’s why Inbox’s speedy UX matters to me: I can physically banish email from my phone with complete peace of mind, knowing that if I have some genuinely urgent or compelling reason to “opt back in,” the app won’t be a hassle to reinstall (and then throw away again!).

Is this aspect of Inbox’s design “delightful”? Not really. Is it satisfying? Hell yes. There’s a big difference. Kevin Roose memorably surveyed the tech world’s obsession with delight in New York magazine; Portland, Oregon, hosts an annual conference dedicated to it; Ideo design director Ingrid Fetell literally specializes in it. Every digital whatzit in creation seems hellbent on putting a cherry on top of whatever thing it exists to accomplish, no matter how transient or mundane. But are any of these things genuinely delightful, or are they merely not quite the pain in the ass that we have come to expect them to be?


To break down my little email-app parable, here’s why I think delight is overrated in interaction design:

  1. It’s superficial. These little delight-delivery mechanisms, like Inbox’s mitosis-izing “reply all” icon, are like the wrapping paper on a Christmas present. They’re there to make an ingratiating first impression when firing up the app you’ve just downloaded. Once you’ve experienced that initial moment—which, sure, might be delightful—it’s done.
  2. It’s unsustainable. If you opened the same Christmas presents every morning, Christmas presents would become utterly un-delightful. Delight necessarily includes an element of surprise. Unless your users are infants and your app plays peek-a-boo, happily surprising someone in the same way over and over again is impossible.
  3. It’s not up to you. This is the big one. If I imagine teams of interaction designers all scheming about how to repeatedly extract a positive emotion out of me, I get queasy. Delight is a fleeting, idiosyncratic, irreducibly personal experience. Trying to mass-produce it and inject it into interactions is like forcing waiters to wear 37 pieces of flair on their uniforms.

I’m not trying to be churlish. Delight is great. But here’s what’s underrated: thoughtful design. That might seem like splitting hairs, but the difference in intention is what matters. Here’s how Charles Eames explained it:

The role of…the designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host, all of whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests—those who enter the building and use the objects in it.

If you think of an app’s user experience as something that is performed for an audience—i.e., projected outward for consumption or distraction—then delight does seem like a reasonable thing for design to aim for. But if you think of an app’s UX as something that one is invited into as a guest, then a focus on inducing delight seems to be missing the point—in the same way that a smarmy waiter is missing the point of why someone comes to a restaurant, as David Mamet writes:

The honest diner goes to the restaurant to have good food in pleasant circumstances. She does not require the waiter’s friendship… The addition of ’emotion’ to a situation that does not organically create it is a lie… It is a counterfeit of emotion, and it is cheap.

When the creators of Gmail Inbox designed the app to be as quick and painless to install as it is, I believe that they were thoughtfully anticipating my needs as their “guest.” But the uniquely satisfying interaction that I created within the setting they provided for me—that of being able to download, use, and delete the app quickly and repeatedly—is not something those designers could have possibly anticipated in a quest to “delight” me. And yet this interaction is the primary reason I choose to use Inbox—and not Outlook, Mailbox, or even Gmail—on my iPhone. It is the mobile-email-software equivalent of “good food in pleasant circumstances.” That may or may not be delightful, but it is more than enough.

More Essays On Overrated Design
It’s Time For The Minimalist Poster Trend To Die by John Brownlee
What Champions Of Urban Density Get Wrong by Inga Saffron
The Case Against Open Design Competitions by Kriston Capps
Hate Your Soulless Office Tower? Blame The Seagram Building by Martin C. Pedersen
No, Flat Design Won’t Save Your Garbage App by Adrian Covert
You’ve All Been Had, Keurig Coffee Is The Devil by Mark Wilson
Beats By Dre Isn’t Great Design, Just Great Marketing by Devin Liddell
Please Stop Making Stupid Smart Jewelry by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan
The Thinkpad Is A Lasting, But Overrated, Design by Mark Wilson

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets