CX Insights

Why Designing for Usability Just Isn’t Enough

7 min read

Why aren’t fanny packs more popular?

In terms of function, they’re incredibly useful — they have enough room to hold all your everyday items, and their location on the body is perfect for quick and convenient access, not to mention weight distribution that allows you to forget you’re carrying anything. Plus, they’re a lot safer for your money in protecting against pick-pockets or purse-snatchers.

On paper, fanny packs seem like they could have revolutionized the way the world carries their belongings. The innovators behind the fanny pack may have designed one of the most useful products of the century, and yet they failed to take one aspect into account, and that one aspect killed their product.

Source: Beyond Usability: From Good to Great

Despite their usefulness, fanny packs are little more than a joke told to open design articles. The failure of fanny packs is that they don’t delight their user. They look silly, and cannot coexist in our fashionable world, so the user experience in wearing one is that of shame and embarrassment.
I don’t know anyone (luckily) who would pay that price for practicality.

There’s an idea in the business world today that new products should fulfill a need in order to be successful. That’s true… but that’s not the whole truth. The reality is that, no matter what the product is — whether a new app or a means to hold your wallet — there’s always one need they all must fulfill in their user: they must delight.

First we’ll explain why designing for delight is important, then we’ll provide a couple tips.


In an article for UX Mag, Morgan Brown and Chuck Longanecker describe what we’re talking about as visceral design, or simply “designing for the gut.”

Visceral design refers to creating an emotional connection between the user and product, that satisfaction that makes the user want to continue using the product, sometimes to an addictive level. This sensation has been known in the gaming industry since the beginning, but was only later applied to web and app interfaces. What the gaming industry knew all along is that by giving the user that special kind of delight in the form of feedback, they’ll want to come back for more.

Source: 3 Pillars of Design

Don Norman takes this a step further in Emotion & Design: Attractive Things Work Better. He explains that the human decision-making mechanism is based on emotion, as a result of millennia of evolution, and is not just unique to humans. In most of the animal kingdom, our instincts have been honed so that we’re able to make decisions more quickly from our immediate emotional responses. The feeling of fear from seeing a snake or tiger, for example, will induce an adrenaline spike that will help us flee if necessary. Likewise, a feeling of joy at the site of delicious food or a loved one will induce an oxytocin bond to make us want to come back for more.

What this means for design is that usability or satisfying a niche should be treated as just the bare minimum for product design. To be sure, usability is delightful, but only to a certain extent. Anders Toxboe, designer for Bonnier Interactive, makes the case that, while usability will satisfy your users, the satisfaction is short-lived.

To be loved, an interface requires far more than functionality.


Designing for delight is not as subjective as it sounds.

There are volumes of psychology and a rich history of trial-and-error to draw from. We’ve analyzed some tips from this Treehouse blog post by Aarron Walter, UX director at MailChimp, and some advice from Brown and Longanecker (mentioned above), as well as our own personal experience on the topic.

1. Focus on aesthetics

While it may seem superficial to focus on looks over substantiality, history shows that looks are substantial (in fact, Norman explains how delightful products are more quickly learned and used with better proficiency). If a cutesy mascot is too cheesy, you can still add a stimulating visuals to almost any design.

Like we described in Web UI Design for the Human Eye, vision is the strongest of the human senses from a design standpoint. Unless the user forms the right first impression, they’re likely to leave your site after 10-20 seconds.

In the example below, see how the prototype for Home.Land.Security (a neighborhood protection app, not the government department) forgoes the traditional map for one with an interesting color scheme and “danger dashboard”, without sacrificing functionality.

Source: Advanced GIS: Web GIS

But don’t neglect the other areas of design. Just as the joy from a purely usable product is short-lived, so too is the satisfaction from a product that relies only on its looks. You’re trying to construct the complete package here — designing for delight is not an excuse to ignore usability.

When in doubt, refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Design Needs. You still need a foundation of functionality and usability, but the pleasure factor helps you rise above the competition.

Source: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Interface Design

2. Create conversational feedback loops

Feedback — what it says, when it comes, how it looks — is your part in the human-computer interaction. Like we described in our free ebook Mastering the Intangibles of Interaction Design, the goal is to make the computer as “human” as possible so the interaction feels more natural. This turns feedback loops into conversations between the user and the product.

Start with the basic points of interaction — registration, confirmations, error messages, sales — and if you can think of more opportunities to talk to you user (without being too “chatty”), utilize those as well. When feedback is necessary, it doesn’t need to be mechanical — infuse a little personality into your communication.

Look at MailChimp for an example. MailChimp understands the nervousness with the first time you’re about to email an entire user base, and rewards users with humor.

Source: MailChimp Launch

Once the email campaign is queued, Mailchimp again uses humor to lighten up an otherwise tense situation.

Source: MailChimp Mail Merge

Finally, when the emails are actually sent, Mailchimp encourages you once more. With these three microinteractions, MailChimp becomes more than just another marketing routine — it’s actually kind of fun.

3. Gifts

You can alway delight users through bribery, even if you’re only phrasing an existing feature as a gift. When the user feels like they were done a favor, they’re more likely to return the favor.

Source: Vanseo Design

If your design permits, try to give away small gifts (like a sample chapter for a book as designer Steven Bradley does for his e-book, or free newsletters) in exchange for a link, referral, or purchase. This concept ties in closely with the principle of reciprocity for UX.

4. Discoverables

People generally enjoy surprise treats more than expected ones. Photojojo uses unexpected and cute animations to infuse a little fun into the experience; for example, clicking the “Add to Cart” buttons creates a “+1” balloon that floats up to the cart icon in the upper-right corner.

Source: Photojojo

While some indicator in the cart is expected, such a pleasing visual is not, making more of an impact.

If you’d like to learn more about personality in design, we highly recommend the book Seductive Interaction Design. We also write cover the topic in Mastering the Intangibles of Interaction Design.


A lot of designers subscribe to school of minimalism — they strip their interfaces of everything except that which is absolutely necessary. In some cases and areas, this works: the checkout process, for example, should be as simple and speedy as possible. But minimalism and delightful elements are not mutually exclusive.

Don’t be afraid to include a flourish here and there that, while not mandatory for usability, brightens the mood and makes an emotional impact on the user. Those can make the difference between a product that’s usable, and a product that’s lovable.

Jerry Cao
Jerry Cao is a UX Content Strategist at UXPin where he creates in-app content and e-books for the free design library. In the past, he has worked on improving website experiences through better content, design, and information architecture. He previously worked at Brafton, DDB San Francisco, and Level Studios. His published work on product design and UX design can be found on TheNextWeb, VentureBeat, DesignModo, WebDesignLedger, and Speckyboy. You can follow him on Twitter @jerrycao_uxpin.