Baltimore, buzzword compliance, dot-communism, work

Turn off delight, the party’s over

Last night, I went to an open house at MICA run by the graphic and digital design group of their Continuing Studies program. I went mostly because Sean Carton was speaking, and he had invited me to come by.

Carton has started writing a weekly column for my day job. Considering he’s now Dean of Philadelphia U.’s School of Design and Media, it was kind of strange on the surface that MICA would ask him to come speak–it almost seemed like GM having Lee Iacocca come speak at a Chevy product launch.
But I was also there to network, and to find out about MICA’s graphic/digital design programs. Plus, it gave me a chance to check out the new Brown Center at MICA, the concrete and glass monster on Mount Royal that’s most famous here in Baltimore for catching a bullet shortly after it opened. And besides, I wanted to steal some ideas from Carton.
And here’s the idea I’m stealing today — to succeed with a product, in bits or atoms, you need to delight.

Here’s the context. After a whirlwind tour through the last 20 years of digital convergence and its impact on culture — and on the amount of available attention people have — Carton talked about how important design has become to the success of a product. Products (be they physical or information-based) succeed because of the total experience people have with them, and much of that experience is a result of design.

The Delight factor is what seperates the iPods, BMWs, Mini Coopers, Muvicos, Googles and such from the rest. People overlook the specs if something engages them in a way that goes beyond just the function of the product.

It’s a dangerous word, “delight.” When I hear managers talk about “delighting the customer”, it usually comes two seconds before they spew out the most idiotic drivel I’ve heard in that particular fiscal quarter. The word itself has lost most of its meaning in daily usage; people just don’t say, “Whoa, dude, this thing delights me.” Typically, it’s used in a sycophantic greeting (“Delighted to meet you!”) or ironically (“I’d be delighted to take that back to the kitchen for you, sir”).

I have a hard time working up to delight. Sure, I covet some of the things that hit the “delight” button hard, like the Mini Cooper, the latest PowerBooks, and so on. But creating a lasting sense of wonder about anything is pretty fucking hard to do. The butterfly on this blog’s header landed next to me on a broken asphalt parking lot…that delighted me, in that moment. Doing stuff with my kids delights me. It’s a real stretch to say that any brand of anything can come close to that level of emotional connection.

And really, that’s the challenge people trying to hack our emotional responses for a buck face these days. Everything has become experiential–everybody is trying to find some way to connect in a scripted, contrived way with the product-consuming public that you really have to do a good job of faking originality to get anyone interested anymore. Everything is derivative of derivative things. To “delight”, you basically have to:

  • be original
  • be “authentic”
  • be inclusive
  • not suck

Baltimore has plenty of places that pull that off for me. The fine folks at Atomic Books know how to pull off the experience for their market niche (Yo, Benn and Rachel! And congrats on the Emily Flake book making the Must List in Entertainment Weekly, by the by). The Karzai family has experience nailed at B and Tapas Teatro. WTMD has somehow managed to steal my iPod playlist and make it their programming.

The other key piece of what Sean Carton said is that eventually, the technology or medium used to deliver whatever connection you’re trying to make with people is irrelavant. It’s about making people feel like they belong within the world that the product/website/experience reflects. A cool, makes-you-want-to-come-back web site isn’t just about the graphics, the beveling, the font choices, or demonstrating mad CSS skillz–it’s dependent upon creating a connection with the audience. The content needs to speak to people at a whole level beyond just passing along information.

I look at the stuff my company does. Does it “delight”? I don’t think so. How do you “delight” IT people, corporate executives, etc. with a tech website? It’s hard enough to just suck less, let alone not suck.


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