Here's a potentially surprising source of inspiration for product design that’ll put you in a league above the rest.
Quick intro if you missed last week’s article: cognitive science shows us that a well-designed product will cause a user to perceive the product to be of higher quality and value (“Aesthetic-Usability effect”), “feel more predisposed to try new things,” overlook negatives about the product, and “generate favorable inferences” about things that are missing from the product. Most interestingly, a product design that increases affect is one of the “biggest drivers of repeat business.” Last week, we got a lesson on all this from product design’s greats (see section 4 for more).
But how do you design your product with high aesthetics? How do you bake in just the right touches to induce positive emotion?
An important way to do this is purely functional: by creating smarter software that removes frustrations instead of creating them, our users can get into a state of flow — or optimal experience.
But another big way, as mentioned by the legends of product design in their amicus curiae to the Supreme Court is aesthetic appeal.
This brings me to what might be a more surprising source of product design inspiration I draw upon, given that I work primarily on productivity and utility apps.
Ever heard of a “digital experience agency”? Or an “interactive design agency,” “brand experience agency,” or “experience design agency”? There are a handful of firms that do some incredible work in this field for the top brands on the planet.
These agencies build products and experiences for companies to strengthen their brands with consumers. They are solely focused on delighting the consumer.
Here’s an example of work done by the (phenomenal) agency Critical Mass for Nissan:
The app is designed to provide a delightful experience to improve brand image with the sponsoring company. With this project, Nissan is leveraging the increased affect felt toward a product and its brand with an app that — to be clear — has virtually nothing to do with their product.
If a car company can use a college game day app with a delightful experience to strengthen their brand with their customers, how much more should an app company use their own apps to strengthen their own brand?
This is why I love exploring the work coming from these agencies: much of this work is meant entirely to strengthen a brand. That’s the goal. Some of the products don’t even have a purpose beyond that. Delight is the #1 — and sometimes the only — goal. And these firms really hit delight out of the park.
This kind of work serves as a great source of inspiration to find little ways to delight our users in our apps. Even if you think you’re ‘just building a utility app,’ increasing aesthetic appeal and delight can be a big driver of repeat business, among other things, so it’s important to get this piece right.
First, I’ll share with you a few examples of products that have adopted little ways of delighting their users. Then, I’ll share with you a handful of sources of inspiration for you to take away from this article and what agencies to watch yourself.
Delight in products
Here’s an example sent in by one of my newsletter readers, Max. (Thanks, Max!)
The app’s goal is essentially just to track how much work you get done. It’s meant to help you be more productive. Heard of the Seinfeld method? Yes, its from Jerry himself.
Essentially, every day he completed his task of writing, he would put a big red “X” in a calendar on that day. Then, he would try to not break the chain — to get some writing done every day. “Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.” It builds momentum as you build any habit: you become more likely to do what you need to do every day (writing, designing, whatever it might be) because you’re on a streak of 5, 36, 104 days, and you don’t want to break the chain.
Forest takes a different approach in its app (it’s not based on a chain of days — for that, see apps like Commit), but it boils down to a similar premise.
It could have easily been a stark app that tracks how much you work every day. Imagine an app that does only that — even if this was helpful, you probably wouldn’t even download it, let alone use it. There’s nothing terribly appealing about that, and it’s hard to imagine that would help you be more productive.
But check out what the product designers of Forest did:
For every session of work, you plant a tree. If you don’t get through a lot, your tree withers and dies. If you get a lot done, the tree grows. Do this enough times, and you’ll be building a forest. See the illustration on the left above? Imagine the impact this user experience could have on your momentum as you see your forest get lusher and expand as you get more done towards your goals.
They found a creative and unique way to delight their users, which makes what could have been an incredibly dull utility app into one that further promotes the goal of the app: getting more done in focused periods of work. Users want to use it, because they want to see and experience a forest that is a reflection of their dedication, presence, and work.
Project management for teams had — for some time — been a thing no software could help with. Asana is one of the solutions out there that can be a game changer for collaborative teams. Here’s the product’s newest promo video:
The video didn’t show the product once, but you still want to use it, don’t you? I know I do.
The video was all delight. But Asana brings these visual elements of delight into the app itself. Here’s one example:
Notice how even the background color animates when you complete a task. They call it a “pop of energy.” It’s gratifying for the user when they’ve just completed a task. Small ways of increasing delight.
Here’s one from my own work. In Throttle, when we discovered that users were stepping through their reading list one-by-one until they had seen all their new messages (having to remember the last thing they saw), we built a “What’s New” tab on mobile that showed a card stack of only new messages that users could literally swipe through.
Surely you’ve seen this interaction in other apps, but look how stark this interaction could have been (right) if it was just a matter of swiping, versus a physical card that seems to rotate off the screen or snap back (left):
Top: The real version has fluid, physical interactions that make it feel more natural. Bottom: A version with the exact same interaction for the user, but that lacks the fluidity.
Drawing Your Own Inspiration
First, I’ll share some examples of interesting digital experience work, then I’ll share the agencies whose portfolios I like to keep an eye on that you might enjoy too.
Evolution Bureau made a Facebook game for Jameson where you had to solve a mystery — figure out who stole the missing barrel of whisky. The catch? The culprit was one of your Facebook friends, and you had to figure it out based on clues taken from the profile.
Speaking of Evolution Bureau, I’m obsessed with these guys. They were the ones responsible for the Elf Yourself craze, and even though so many of their projects show immense levels of creativity, this one encapsulates it all quite nicely:
Is that relevant to this article? Not really. But I just saw it for the first time yesterday and had to share it. Genius.
Word Cloud Portrait by Sparks for The New York Times
It’s incredibly simple — it’s just a fun user experience — but it engaged their audience so much that they saw far better numbers than usual.
Interact with this site. Slowly move your mouse towards the navigation on the left. Check out the “map” section. The entire thing is packed with elements of delight that increase engagement and average time on the site. Seriously, take a minute, click the link, and just check it out.
A few more examples from Active Theory:
Agencies to Watch
Some of my favorite agencies are listed below — just check out their portfolios, usually under “work,” whenever you need some inspiration on how you might delight your users. Believe me — these folks are the best in the business at delighting people.
- TBWA\CHIAT\DAY — TBWA\CHIAT\DAY develops strategies, advertising and creative content for some of the world's most iconic brands…tbwachiatday.com
- EVB — We are your brand's best kept secret.
We use creativity and our grasp of culture to make brands meaningful, profitable and famous.www.evb.com
- Critical Mass — Experience design agency
- Hornall Anderson — Brand Experience Design Agency
Global Design and Branding expertise for more than 30 years, with offices in Seattle, London, Hull, and Leeds. We use…www.hornallanderson.com
- VaynerMedia — At VaynerMedia, you'll learn to be the best storyteller there is, by getting exposure to everything from content…vaynermedia.com
- Active Theory — Active Theory is a creative digital production studio based in Venice, California. We make bold things for the big guys…activetheory.net
Finding little ways of delighting your users, leveraging aesthetic appeal — in conjunction with an empathetic and innovative interface — can help your product’s users grow an emotional connection to the brand that you’re building. That’s why the little details matter.
Learn to make world-class products that sell themselves.
Get actionable insights on product design and product ideation each Thursday morning, so you can become a pro at creating products people will love.
Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription.