Designing for delight. It’s an awesome principle that is often diluted down to something that is very ill defined. It’s a goal, a methodology, an activity. But what do we as the “delight designers” do to remember the simplistic essence of what that means?
It is a lot easier to see delight in things that are obvious. Being able to call a towncar from an app and have it arrive like magic, or having a thermostat that automatically adjusts itself based on your habits. Our whole world is being filled with gadgets and apps that make you feel like a superhero.
What We Build vs. What We Make
I saw this image on Twitter a few weeks ago, and was thinking about it on my drive home the night I wrote this. It’s a gross oversimplification, but it elicits a clear reaction from those who see it, and is something that a lot of people can instantly identify with. The product is what we focus on building, but the result is what we actually sell.
This lead to a train of thought that wandered around my mind, and eventually I came to this story that my friend Sam had shared with me a few years ago as we were doing some landscaping. This story is 100% true, but I never actually looked at it like this until seeing that image of Mario triggered the connection. It’s an odd story about synthetic turf, tar tape, and torches.
Sam had a one-man operation selling and installing synthetic turf. Fake lawns, putting greens, etc. I needed to install some on a house my dad owned a few years back so I hired Sam to help me, and for about a week we slaved away in the freezing cold getting this yard ready.
It was not an easy job. It involved ripping out the existing lawn, carrying wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of dirt, roadbase, gravel and landscaping rock all around the property. There was shoveling, scraping, trench digging, compacting, tamping (you haven’t lived until you’ve tamped a few hundred square feet), and hauling the heavy rolls of the synthetic turf which felt like a super thick vinyl carpet.
Yards and especially putting greens are all sorts of shapes and sizes. The turf had to be laid out on the ground, cut to the shapes and then connected together. You connected it with something called “seam tape.” It was basically an aluminum foil tape about 6 inches wide, with tar all over one side. You used it like regular tape, connecting the two pieces of turf together on the back side so it looked seamless on the top side.
The problem was that while the tar side of the tape was sticky, it had to be permanent. So how you joined the pieces of turf together permanently was by using a propane torch to blast the aluminum side and melt the tar to the vinyl backing, fusing it all together. It is sort of fun to do (for a while).
I’ve never done anything like this before, I was just the unexperienced laborer trying not to burn myself or screw something up. When we got to the seam tape part, Sam brought me a torch and gave me the full overview:
“Turn the gas knob on a little bit, pull the trigger, then can crank it up to full.”
Awesome, an auto-ignition trigger. Beats the hell out of lighting it with a match or lighter. Just pull the trigger and you get fire.
So as we proceeded to connect the pieces of turf, taping and torching, Sam told me a quick story about an experience he had on another installation job. It was just a few sentences, simple smalltalk. The whole story took maybe less than a minute to tell. But somehow I’ve remembered it all this time, the memory crystalized in my mind.
Sam worked with a man named Roberto, a contract laborer from Mexico who worked construction and other general labor jobs. Roberto had a solid reputation and good attitude, and Sam had hired him multiple times. Roberto didn’t speak much English, but didn’t have any problem understanding what work needed to be done.
Sam was working a job installing turf somewhere down in Nevada, and brought Roberto along. Roberto had never done a turf installation before, he was learning it all for the first time. But, he was familiar with tools and had his own gear and really only needed to be told what to do, not how.
Well, when it came time to use the seam tape to connect the pieces together, Sam told him how you fit the edges, trim if needed, then tape and torch. Easy enough, Roberto had no problem understanding the English instructions and pantomime.
Sam and Roberto went to different parts of the job site and began connecting and taping and torching. At some point, Sam ended up over by Roberto and noticed something odd. Every few minutes when Roberto had to get up and arrange more pieces of turf, he would shut off the gas valve on the torch head, as that is the proper procedure. But when it was time to start again, he would turn on the gas and light it with a match.
A match? Huh?
A Benzomatic propane tank and standard, brass torch head runs about $15 dollars. This is easily the most popular and readily available brand of propane torch. You could buy the combined set once, and then just buy the refill tanks for $6-7 dollars.
Now in contrast, an auto-igniter torch head costs about $40-50 alone. You only have to buy the heads once and then buy refill tanks after that. Quite an investment for a (legal?) immigrant laborer, and probably not in the budget.
The kicker here is that Roberto had never seen an auto-igniter, and didn’t realize that he was holding one the whole time. It’s hard to believe he wasn’t familiar, but if you imagine his background and situation, it’s not that much of a stretch to assume that Roberto was accustomed to using matches to light the torch. A box of 250 matches is around $5, 2 cents a piece. Simple, reliable, can be found anywhere. Pondering “is there any way I can get around lighting this match” wasn’t really on Roberto’s list of priorities.
Back to the story. Sam notices that Roberto is manually lighting the torch every few minutes. He walks over and gets Roberto’s attention, picking up the torch and showing him “If you turn on the gas, push this button, and then pull this trigger thing, the torch will light automatically.”
Mind = blown. Roberto got this relieved and excited look on his face like “of course!” It made so much sense! But before this, he had no real concept of an auto-igniting torch and no real reason to assume one existed. He took the torch from Sam, gave it a try, and said something that stuck with me all these years. As Sam recounted the story, he did an imitation of Roberto’s comment, how he sort of chuckled under his breath and saying quietly to himself:
The best part? A few more times throughout the day Sam says he would overhear Roberto saying “no match!” a handful of times as he continued to work with this newly discovered auto-ignite trigger. It meant so much to him that throughout the rest of the day, just the thought of “no match” brought him delight. I like to think that for a moment, Roberto felt like a fire-commanding superhero.
That comment breaks down what experience design is with just two simple words. I have no idea if that Benzomatic auto-ignite torch was designed and built with a human focused intent or a goal of delight. Regardless, it provided a delightful experience that has a positive impact on the person using it. Yet, during the first design sessions around it, would the goal of the project have been summarized as “When someone pulls the trigger for the first time, we want to make them marvel and say ‘no match!'”
That is what was being designed and sold. Not the propane, or torch, or even the auto-igniter itself, but the concept of producing something great that gets a genuine human response. I would have never considered the UX of propane torches without this story, my head is stuck around software of “the enterprise” and “mobile first” and all the other codified focuses of UX we write and read about. But here was a simple interaction that had a clear and positive message. Everything can be delightful, right down to the propane torch you use to heat up tar tape.
That’s what I think of when “we’re selling an experience, not a product” comes up. The feeling of understated delight when something seemingly benign is turned into something positive and makes you quietly chuckle. How many times a day can we make a user offhandedly recognize the simple pleasures of what we design, and have their own “no match” moment.