Designing user experiences that delight | by Dean Hope | Nov, 2021

Depending on who you speak to, a delightful experience may be interpreted in a variety of ways. Some people will provide an example of witty microcopy or vivid illustrations, while others may describe a product that works well.

The experience of delight is subjective to each person and difficult to quantify, yet there are certain things that we may do to create delightful moments.

This post focuses on the fundamentals of what facilitates a delightful experience, as well as the psychology behind it so we can understand the ‘why’ behind a user’s thought process.

User delight is a term that refers to any pleasant emotional response a user might have when interacting with technology or interface.

It might be challenging to detect when a user is experiencing delight, it takes empathy to recognize the subtle signs that a person may provide, but it does affect the manner in which we use a website or app.

Even if a user expresses their delight outwardly, it would be a mistake to think it would work for all users. Delight is highly contextual. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

For example, there are many differing viewpoints on how happy people are with the Mailchimp rebrand.

Before and after of the Mailchimp logo. Source: Mailchimp


Interoception is a fancy word for internal sensing. Our brain receives signals from our internal organs, our immune system and our nervous system, then summarises this data to inform the next decision we make.

In essence, interoception is gut instinct. It’s when something feels ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ even though we can’t explain why. Interoception lies beyond our intuition and influences the decisions we make.

The experience of looking down when you’re at a great height is an excellent illustration, the feeling of vertigo being an example of this. Even if you’re safely behind a barrier and viewing down, logic and reason will not alleviate your anxiety. Your body continues to react to the information it receives, regardless. You still tremble. Your heart races still races.

“The responses in the amygdala are so fast that they could reflect an automatic or unconscious visual process, which might explain why fear can sometimes feel out of our voluntary control,”

— Dr. Bryan Strange

This is due to the fact that our brains haven’t evolved with rationality in mind. It may sound strange, but brains haven’t evolved to think or perceive the world around us accurately, or even for us to see, hear or feel.

Instead, brains evolved to help us navigate the world around us effectively. So, if you’re standing on a high ledge with your feet firmly planted on the ground behind a barrier with no possible way of falling and feel fear, it’s because your body is responding in self-preservation.

“We tend to think that the brain is sitting on top of the pyramid, and it’s controlling the body in general — actually, it’s probably the other way around,”

— Tallon-Baudry.

Take the case of a self-driving vehicle as an example. The algorithm that governs how a self-driving vehicle navigates in the world is comparable to our interoception. The algorithm influences our decision-making process on a subconscious level before we are even aware of our surroundings.

I guess this is why there isn’t a phrase like “mindful rationalization” that exists, but there is for post-rationalization.

Actions are more powerful than words. It’s never just what a person says; it’s also about what they do and how they feel. We must be able to read between the lines of the algorithm and we need a great deal of empathy to do so.


Exteroception is our general awareness of the environment we are situated in. Our five external senses are used to detect our physical position, motion, and condition. These external senses also known as proprioceptive senses and are the five senses with which we are all familiar: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.

Our proprioceptive senses give us a window into the world, allowing us to see, hear, touch and feel everything we encounter. These things we come across, the events we live through as a result of our proprioceptive senses aid in the development of mental models that help us navigate life more effectively.

If we take our self-driving car analogy, exteroception is the computer vision, as well as the image processing that focuses on detecting instances of semantic objects.

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.

— Henry David Thoreau

We utilize our internal and external perceptions to move about in the world. We construct mental models as we travel through time and observe the world around us, which are then stored in long-term memory.

Because pattern recognition and continuity are simpler for our brains to handle, mental models that we have established in our minds direct how we act in reality. It takes time, repetition, and a compelling purpose to develop new mental models. Like the wise Wu-Tang Clan once said:

Mental models ain’t nuthin to f*ck with.

— Wu-Tang Clan

Aarron Walter’s Hierarchy of User Needs

Pleasurable needs are regarded to be the most advanced, sitting at the top of Aarron Walter’s Hierarchy of User Needs. Before a user can experience delight, their core foundational needs must be met.

Mental models have been developed and hardened through a lifetime of experience. The tiniest modification which conflicts with our pre-existing mental models might result in chaos, with potentially devastating real-world consequences.

Good design must be recognizable enough for a user to manoeuvre through it without difficulty, even if they are partially conscious of what they’re doing.

There’s a reason why there are tried and true design and architectural patterns. There’s a reason why a book is formatted the way it is, or any other system in place, whether it’s wayfaring navigation or traffic light systems.

Without utilizing mental models and tried and tested design patterns and architecture, the functionality, reliability and usability of a product may suffer.

Good design is something that causes delight, kind of a positive functional surprise, embedded within an emotional uplifting feeling. Something that makes you feel respects you as a human, as a person who uses it, and brightens your day. It should do it time and again without taking too much attention.

— Gigi Amit

A poor design prevents us from experiencing delight by restricting our capacity to feel as we have concentrated all of our conscious minds on the system we are attempting to traverse. It eliminates freedom of expression, innovation, and surprise while learning the system, resulting in mental clutter, tension, and dissatisfaction.

The icing goes onto the cake, not the other way around.

Concentrating on the delight element of our experience before we’ve satisfied our primary user needs would be like making a cake and applying icing to it before it’s been in the oven; there will be a mess, an albeit delicious mess but a mess nonetheless.

We should strive to provide delightful experiences for our users by building from the ground up, starting with their fundamental needs. Delight should become a part of the experience by adding to it rather than getting in the way.

Delight also has an expiry date and even the most appealing features may become tiring with time. You’ll have to refresh those design elements time and time again to keep things exciting.

It’s a good idea to include elements of delight on the screens that a user will rarely see. For example:

  • When there’s an empty state, such as in between page load times
  • During an onboarding process
  • On a success page, after a form has been complete
  • After they’ve created an account
  • On initial load when they first launch the application

With this approach, your elements of delight will be scarce and of surprise; yet, most importantly, they won’t interfere with your user’s primary needs.

The human decision-making process is a complicated one, and it is built upon a variety of psychological factors, including but not limited to interoceptive and exteroceptive awareness.

The aim should be to create an experience for our users that is first and foremost; functional, reliable and usable which can be achieved by facilitating our user’s pre-existing mental models rather than working against them.

If we do not bear this in mind, we run the danger of creating an experience that results in cognitive overload and stress, which is the polar opposite of delight if you ask me.

With that being said, this is only the tip of the iceberg; various people have different ideas of delight, which is why contextual design should be part of your design process so that you may understand your users’ desires as well as their fundamental needs.


A Theory of User Delight: Why Usability Is the Foundation for Delightful Experiences
— Therese Fessenden

The dangers of delightful design
— John Saito

The importance of delightful UX
— Martin Skarbø Sangolt

Welcome to the Experience Economy
—B. Joseph Pine II & James H. Gilmore

First direct evidence for ultra-fast responses in human amygdala to fear
— Universidad Complutense de Madrid

The Epic Fail of Mailchimp’s Rebrand
David S

Five Takeaways from Mailchimp’s Outlandish Rebranding
Tilak Shrivastava

Interoception: How We Understand Our Body’s Inner Sensations
— Kim Armstrong

Examining Intuitive Navigation in Airports
— Andrew Cave, Alethea Blackler, Vesna Popovic & Ben Kraal

How bad ballot design can sway the result of an election
— Spenser Mestel

Missiles, False Alarms, and Bad Design
Maya Hampton

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