Designed to Delight (Part 2)

Last time I explored the notion of delightfully-designed software. Delightful software is empathetic, detail-focused software–with a dash of unexpected fun thrown in. Now for some specifics.

Mobile Apps

Mobile apps are currently the most delightful software around. Smaller screen sizes and more ephemeral usage patterns force developers to build concise applications that are intended to do one thing well. Instead of offering infinite customizability and kitchen sink features, good mobile apps focus on streamlining workflows and user experience often takes center stage.

Third-party apps take a cue from the human interface guidelines published by the platform maker. And generally speaking, iOS apps tend to offer better experiences and richer interfaces than Android apps. Android apps have to necessarily account for a myriad number of hardware device configurations and OS version capabilities; as such, a fine attention to detail can become distracted by so many support concerns. But the Android OS is continually improving, and Google has published a solid set of interface guidelines and a better SDK to help developers build more consistent interfaces–the Android user experience continues to get better. As Android developers improve Android’s library of third-party apps, Android should see a movement away from utilitarian-driven app design to delight-driven app design.

Here are just a few examples of delightful touches in some great mobile apps.

Instapaper provides a number of features that make it the best mobile read app out there. One of those features is auto dark mode, where the app automatically changes the background and text color to make articles easier to read during the day and at night; transition periods have their own setting.

Instapapers auto dark mode

This is is a delightful feature–and it shows that the app has been designed to empathetically anticipate the needs of users because the target user is the app developer.

Soulver is a delightful app because as you use it, you can’t help but notice the clear attention to detail that went into building it. Apple provides a built-in Calculator app, but it looks and behaves exactly like a pocket calculator–with all of its limitations and shortcomings. Soulver provides a modern calculator that’s smart and flexible.

Soulvers interface

The UI isn’t constrained by skeumorphic principles. It trusts that its users aren’t put off by an unfamiliar interface. And it rewards that trust by “figuring out” what users mean as they enter words and numbers as prose.

Google+’s mobile app had a rough start, but an update delivered several months after the initial launch makes the app a delight to use. There’s plenty of eye candy, but it’s used with taste. Animations are fluid and fast. Images are big and bold and take advantage of the full screen.

Google+ interface

Plenty of polish and tasteful design decisions make Google+ the most delightful social networking app out there.

Gogobot has a cute bear mascot that peeks out as you pull to refresh.


It’s an unexpected touch that brings a smile to your face as you wait for new content to load.

An attention to detail, an empathetic design that’s willing to put in the extra effort, and a dash of fun make a mobile app a delight to use.


Unlike native apps, web apps have to operate in a much more hostile environment. Desktop and mobile apps are built for a specific platform and often for a specific subset of users on that platform. Developers choose to support–or rather to not support–certain locales, languages, computers, and users. But websites can be accessed by any number of web browsers, using many different operating systems; and the audience is potentially anyone around the world.

Additionally–unlike native apps–every image, every custom font, every bit of client-side code has a certain cost, since these additional resources must be downloaded and executed at runtime. Would you rather wait for a page to load in order to see a whimsical illustration of a mascot, or would you rather just have the content immediately? A delightful website is a fast website. But there’s a fine line between offering a speedy just-the-content experience and richer, content-and-images-and-slick-hotness-but-oh-wait-loading experience. The drab, austere pages of Google (circa several years ago) or Craigslist (circa always) are not delightful.

So in a such hostile environment, where users may already be impatient and unsympathetic, the possibility for delight can be more rare.

Website copy can be humorous and light, but since web pages are crawled by search engines and can be accessed–and misconstrued–by anyone from around the world, it tends to be written “California MBA” style–a weird kind of business-speak full of fake sincerity and veiled meaning. The best web copy is simple, direct, and open (which is rare).

404 pages–the error pages that you see when you navigate to a dead link on a site–have had a renaissance of delight in recent years. A website’s main pages may be businessy and professional, but the error page is where designers and engineers have a chance to blow off steam because–“It’s an error page–who cares?” Yet, weirdly, these flourishes of delight still have the capability to backfire. When you’re trying to find a blog post or follow an old link, you may not appreciate seeing a laughing cartoon character or an Astroid-esque HTML5 game on an error page.

Github 404 page

At some point this page of content existed. But now it’s gone without a trace. And your cute page isn’t helpful.

No doubt Twitter’s error page–featuring an illustration of a whale being held aloft by birds–was designed to delight. But the whimsical illustration quickly became a symbol of frustration and derision, since that was the first thing users would see when the site would experience problems.

Fail Whale

It’s nice to see websites start to add more delightful touches; but making delightful error pages may not be the right place to start.

The conclusion of this series looks at delightful design–for the corporate world.