Do we need delight?

In UX we often talk about making a user’s experience delightful. But recently I’ve been questioning whether we really need delight, or is it a nice-to-have? And how does the pursuit of it affect sustainability and accessibility?

Do we need delight?

In my journey to low/zero-waste in my own life, the most common question I ask myself is do we really need it or is it a nice-to-have? And more recently I’ve been questioning that in my digital work, especially when it comes to imagery and motion which we know can push up CO2 emissions of a website or app if not used wisely.

I think part of the problem I’m noticing here is how the theory is being applied, rather than the theory itself being the problem. When Don Norman said:

“It is not enough that we build products that function, that are understandable and usable, we also need to build products that bring joy and excitement, pleasure and fun, and, yes, beauty to people’s lives.”

He definitely didn’t say go forth and animate every possible interaction you possibly can. But sometimes when I browse Awwwards and Dribbble it really does feel like that’s how it’s been interpreted. I realised when I hear the phrase delightful UX and the first thing that comes to my mind is UI animation, that I too had got stuck in this mindset.

Nielsen Norman Group refer to this as ‘Surface Delight’ and it can include animation, tactile transitions, microcopy, imagery and sound. But say “these types of UI elements are often gimmicky and have the potential for tackiness if the underlying product is less than perfect.

Unfortunately this pursuit of excessive ‘Surface Delight’ has come at a huge cost to the environment with things like WebGL 3D animations and tonnes of javascript pushing up CO2 emissions. And the more I study accessibility, the more I realise my privilege. All those times I had a positive ‘delightful’ experience using a website or app, there were potentially millions of disabled people who didn’t, who had the polar opposite experience, and were left feeling frustrated and excluded.

So what did Don Norman really mean? 

Nielsen Norman Group defines ‘Deeper Delight’ as “holistic, and is achieved once all user needs are met, including functionality, reliability, usability and pleasurability.” The idea being that we don’t focus on designing delight itself, it will naturally arise when the rest of our design works well to meet those needs. 

Stepping out of digital and into the physical for a second. A business that really nailed this recently was Bide Planet. When my box of eco-friendly cleaning products arrived in the post it was packaged with a handful of packing peanuts made of cornstarch with a note saying these could be dissolved in water or given to a child to play with. More than a nice-to-have, as they did protect what was in the box from being damaged. And they created sheer delight as the most favoured toy at my son’s birthday party, and didn’t even need cleaning up after as they simply dissolved on our lawn. They were designed to be functional and usable and delight naturally arose. 

I’m not saying don’t ever use surface delight techniques. Microcopy is especially brilliant at supporting the user journey. It’s accessible to people using screen readers, and has a low carbon footprint. We are big fans of it here at DRUM. As always in UX context is everything:

For example when we need to do something like renew a passport, if we’re able to do this in an easy way without any pain points in our user journey, our deep delight is relief that the task is done, it’s off our to do list, without causing us stress. Minimal animation such as simple progress indicators is a must have rather than a nice-to-have. We don’t need anything jazzy to make us smile especially if it would push up the CO2 or exclude people.


So it’s time to switch things up, to really create the ‘Deep Delight’ Nielsen and Norman are talking about, we need to meet those needs of all users and in a way that doesn’t push up those CO2 emissions. When we leave a disabled user feeling happy, and the planet happy, we’ve done our jobs well.