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User delight and the guy-from-the-train phenomenon


One way to delight users is with the guy-in-the-unexpected-context phenomenon. You know the story: you take the same train to work every day. One Saturday afternoon you're in a cafe when you spot a familiar face at the next table. "Hey, it's the guy from the train!" you think, with a smile. Then the guy from the train notices you, and his eyes light up. You start a lively conversation moving from weather to espresso to geopolitical forces. You exchange URLs.

The thing is, you took the train with this guy for the last 18 months and never gave him a moment's thought...until you saw him at the cafe.

That's the power of unexpected context.

Even if you don't talk to the guy, seeing him in a completely different context is enough to make your brain light up. A feeling of delight. And it's that feeling of delight we (and our users) love.

[Disclaimer: common sense and logic apply. Say you're at a bluegrass concert and see the last person you'd expect: your ex-boyfriend, clearly on a hot date. This is the same ex who told you he'd start taking hostages if a banjo was involved. Not all out-of-context surprises are delightful.]

The unexpected context can be a Big Deal, like an airline letting you make a change to your flight without slapping a huge change fee on you and--much weirder--giving you a refund credit if your new fare is less than your original flight. You expect this kind of treatment from Nordstrom's. But in the context of an airline?
[See JetBlue change rules]

Any company with way over the top customer service (for that domain) is giving its users an unexpected, delightful surprise. Something to remember. Something to talk about. But even the subtle out-of-context surprise can trigger some neurons and brain chemistry. A reference to one movie slipped into the dialogue of...another movie. An easter egg hidden in a... logo (like the FedEx one). A bud vase in a...car. It's not about the thing--it's about the context in which that thing is expressed.

Some examples, big and small:

Context: Wine bottle label
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: The label is a cartoon...by Hugh from GapingVoid

Context: Geek Conference
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: Delivered on a cruise ship and turns out to be less expensive than attending a similar conference held at a hotel.
[See Geek Cruises, which I recommend]

Context: A Microsoft guy giving a conference presentation
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: He's a Really Nice Guy! With kids even!
Tony Chor was a highlight for many of us at Webstock, myself included, who weren't expecting someone quite so fun, down-to-earth, approachable, and, well, cute. Then again every employee of Microsoft I've actually talked to seems to be a Really Nice Person.

Context: A technical business presentation
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: It's informative and entertaining
[If you have a chance to catch Damian Conway or Joel Spolsky give a presentation, don't miss it!]

Context: Geek/Tech discussion board
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: The people are friendly. No question is too dumb, no answer too lame.
[See Javaranch, where a simple (but heavily enforced) "Be Nice" policy is responsible for the success of this programming community with more than a half-million unique visitors each MONTH. You read that right.]

Context: Sales-tracking software purchase, direct from the publisher
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: Not only do they get the software to you the next day--after you plead that it's a birthday gift--but the first time the birthday guy launches it, a Happy Birthday song is programmed in the start-up screen!

[True story--developer Gregg Sanderson went way beyond expectations first by getting it out within, like, minutes after I called... but he also managed to (unrequested) modify the start-up screen resource of his Market Master sales support software. And when a magazine a few months later did a write-up on the software and wanted a quote from a customer... who do you think Gregg had them call? A person (me) who still raves about the experience almost 15 years later!]

Context: Car dealer
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: Fresh-baked cookies brought to your door a week after buying a new car.
[That happened to my father, after buying a new Honda. When some random guy walked up the steps with cookies, the last thing my father expected was a "How's the car and thank you very much and here's some cookies to show our appreciation" thing. In the US, Girl Scouts, not car dealers, bring cookies.]

Context: Rock concert--successful indie band
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: The lead singer calls out the names of long-time regulars from the fan message board who said they were going to be there.
That happened to my daughter at a Travis show in Denver.

Context: Travel Trailer
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: The interior could be in the museum of modern art. (Or at least an IKEA store...)

That's what Airstream did when they got the award-winning modern designer/architect Christopher Deam to design a line of CCD Airstreams. This wildly-successful approach has Airstream singlehandedly enlarging the travel trailer market by orders of magnitude. Where one typically associates (accurately, as the demographic data shows) RVs and travel trailers with, well, retired grandparents... the average CCD buyer is around half the age of the traditional trailer/RV purchaser.

Celebrity Airstream owners include Tom Hanks, Andy Garcia, Tim Burton, Sean Penn, and Matthew McConaughey, who travelled in one more than 8,000 miles to promote a movie.

[Apparently others share my Airstream lust, including Peter Davidson's Alumnium Obsession (which mentions the latest special edition model, a surf-inspired partnership with QuickSilver). FYI, I really like Peter's blog.
And I try, every day, to not be jealous of Web Standards Mistress Dori Smith , whose frickin' office is this 1957 Airstream.]

Context: Geek Conference, pre-show tutorial
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: The only charge is a donation to charity.
[That's what the Rails guys did with their Rails Guidebook. While I'm here, you are considering the European Rails Conference, are you not?

Context:Off-the-shelf software packaging
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: There's a special edition t-shirt inside the box, which has a special slot just for the shirt.
That's what a now-extinct multimedia authoring tool named mTropolis (an appbought and killed by Quark) did. The surprise of opening the box (back in the days when software came in those hard cases) and finding a slot for the discs, a slot for the manual, and--what's this??!--a slot with a t-shirt was such a treat. Those t-shirts became very special to those of us who had them.

Context: Company that creates Business Presentations
Delightful Out-of-Context Surprise: Their website includes a main menu choice for "Staff Tattoos"
Way past edgy Missing Link is the opposite of what you'd ever expect from a company that does, well, PowerPoint. If you can call it that. Their 'tude-rich slogan is, "Don't hire us because we're fun and interesting. Hire us because you're not." I love these guys for not "selling out" even the tiniest bit, by acting more "corporate professional". They even swear. On their blog. Right there in front of God and prospective clients and everyone.

And finally, back to that bud vase. Such a simple thing. But something special for those passionate New Beetle owners, including the ones who figured out how to mod it to light up.

A few tips for out-of-context user delights::

1) Take an attribute that's normal and expected in one domain, and use it where it would not be expected.
(Example: VW bud vase, Stormhoek wine label, t-shirt in the mTropolis box)

2) Take an attribute in your domain that's expected, and do the opposite.
(Example: the Missing Link business presentation guys, and how they've turned the "professionalism" attribute on its head.)

Bonus points if that opposite thing is also something that lets users off the hook (i.e. reduces guilt). Example: the apartment building with the "Dogs Required" sign.

3) Do something completely out of character.
(Example: the Bryan Texas water quality report)

4) Combine two things that nobody would think to combine.
(Example: GeekCruises, the Installation Skateboard Shoe + Art Gallery)

5) Blow a stereotype

6) Add "meaning" where it's not usually expected
(Example: Webstock conference. Think about the name, and the slogan "Code for Freedom". If I hadn't been there and spent so much time with the organizers/visionaries, I would have assumed it was just a marketing ploy. It wasn't. They meant it. Many attendees and speakers left that conference with not just renewed but new motivation and energy for improving user experiences in a way that really does help the world. Nobody who saw Darren Fittler's accessibility presentation, for example, walked away unchanged.)

7) Care about detail in the smallest of ways, and without using it as a marketing tool!
(Example: the HP calculators who've had tactile feedback forever. They didn't have to do it.)

8) "Sex it up" by adding beauty and/or sex appeal where it's not expected.

Your ideas?

[And wow -- I'm still sifting through the amazing and wonderful comments y'all left on my "what makes a popular blog post, and Dan's two posts. What a treat for me to come back to, after being completely off-the-grid for almost two weeks.]

Posted by Kathy on June 7, 2006 | Permalink


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» Doing the unexpected from Sparkplug 9 >> bizhack
If youre involved in any kind of product development or marketing (and who isnt in one or the other or both), dont miss this post on the delight and magic of the familiar transposed into unexpected environments. Wondering how to ap... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 8, 2006 8:01:54 PM

» Inspiration of the Day: 6/9/06 from Start-Up Guide
Creating Passionate Users: User delight and the guy-from-the-train phenomenon Awesome post! Tons of great examples! We talk about this type of stuff for Paragon Lake (due to developer issues, our launch has been pushed back till next week) a great [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 9, 2006 8:58:35 AM

» Creating Delighted Customers? from infurious
If you consider yourself an entrepreneur, achieve something by reading this entry on the Creating Passionate Users blog. We're traditionally taught that we have to under-promise and over-deliver if we want to create satisfied customers. We have to exceed [Read More]

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» User delight and the guy-from-the-train phenomenon from
This is great article with some examples shows how to creat out-of-context user delights. A must read article for all marketers [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 10, 2006 2:50:53 AM

» I'm a "delightful out of context surprise"! from Tonynet Explorer
Kathy Sierra, author of the fantastic "Creating Passionate Users" blog just wrote a post about how out-of-context surprises like the bud vase in the new VW Beetle can delight users. She listed a bunch of neat examples of this, so imagine my surprise wh... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 12, 2006 9:06:32 PM

» Out-of-context Surprises from Brian Sweat's blog
One of our customers was in our office this week and told us about an really interesting thing they do for their customers. He said that they give their employees small index cards with their company logo, address and the employees contact informa... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 23, 2006 7:52:26 AM


When you are doing all this, just do it! Not because you have to.

I got a little gift from my real estate agent after I bought my first house. It was a set of kitchen knifes. Nice right but the knifes have his name, business adress and phone number which looks like a marketing material not a gift.

Posted by: Mahmoud | Jun 7, 2006 8:11:10 PM

Welcome back :)

Thanks for promoting SA wines & fantastic that Gaping Void is teaming up with them.

How about this one for power of unexpected context; Kathy replying to an email ;)

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Jun 7, 2006 9:10:24 PM

About JetBlue: They are pretty amazing. Not only are their fares lower than their competitors', their customer service is better. If you call them, you get to talk to a real human who speaks real English and is nice and helpful. Not only don't you expect that from an airline, you certainly don't expect it from a *low-cost* airline.

I am also happy that they *don't* give you any "food" of a quality somewhere in the range from 'inedible' to 'disgusting'. Do people really, honestly think that airline food is "free'?

Anyway, sorry for ranting. I just wanted to say that JetBlue is an airline that I almost like. I have nothing to with them, other than being a happy customer.

Posted by: Harry | Jun 7, 2006 9:35:26 PM

Ever ordered a CD from cdbaby.com? Try it. You'll not only get a great CD, but also a delightful out-of-context surprise shipping acknowledgement (which I refuse to reveal in hopes of increasing their business).

Posted by: Henry Halff | Jun 7, 2006 9:56:53 PM

Welcome back, Kathy!

I'm not sure if you read the "Bud Vase Features" post I wrote on Signal vs. Noise last year, but it talks about the same example -- I think it's a great one. Your others are awesome as well. Volkswagen totally nailed it with that feature (but not, I think, since). It seems like today's equivalent is the Scion. Tony Stubblebine just mentioned to me that the average buyer spends $4,000 on customization of the Scion (! maybe I heard the set qualifier incorrectly, but the number is right, apparently). Zoinks.

Glad to have you (and your posts) back.

Posted by: Marc Hedlund | Jun 7, 2006 10:08:58 PM

In a similar vein, SmallDog.com includes small plastic dogs with every order. It's not a big deal, but you bet that I keep them on the shelf above my desk, and they remind me that SmallDog is an option when I'm buying stuff online.

(And glad you like the Airstream, but I'm jealous of enough things about you in return!)

Posted by: Dori | Jun 7, 2006 10:14:54 PM


You're right that I did say that the average Scion buyer puts $4000 into customization, but the closest I can come to real data is this Springwise post saying that they average $1200 in customization at the dealer (3x the average).

Clearly they're doing something right. The two things that I struck me as out of context is that Scion's are sold on a fixed price (which is totally out of context for a car dealership) and that there's a massive amount of head room despite being one of the smaller cars on the market.

Posted by: Tony Stubblebine | Jun 7, 2006 10:46:17 PM

> While I'm here, you are considering the European Rails Conference, are you not?

No, I'm not. I use Django. :-)

Posted by: Nicola Larosa | Jun 7, 2006 11:37:36 PM

Oh how good it is to have you "home"! Your passion is infectious and I sooo relate to this post - I have this thing about customer service. I remember when it used to be called "going the extra mile". That dates me! It's so cool when the extra mile is uncalled for and totally left field. I enjoyed the examples you give. It's just a pity that with your South African wine you didn't get the chance to sample a South African popcorn snack called Jumpin' Jacks. These guys have a wacky little shpiel on their packaging about the ingredients and their business philosophy that makes you want to go and work for them. Never before had I enjoyed reading the back of a packet quite so much.

Posted by: Karyn Romeis | Jun 8, 2006 3:30:44 AM

Speaking of Joel Spolsky, I stumbled across a book by him recently titled "The Best Software Writing I". This is a collection of essays, about software and the software industry, by articulate developers who write well. Most are available on the web; this brings them together in one place.

I have trouble putting it down.

Lots of opinions - many of them keynote speeches - leap about from coding styles to group management. The mix itself adds to the attraction. My favourite (so far) - "A group is its own worst enemy" which looks at the evolution of social software, such as blogs.

Must put book away and get to work........

Posted by: bren | Jun 8, 2006 6:26:05 AM

This is one of the most interesting posts I have read in a long time. Since I am currently tasked to make some full page magazine ads, I think that I will definitely try to put some of these ideas to use there. The more I think about it, the more that this method of becoming seen seems to work.

Posted by: jestep | Jun 8, 2006 9:00:28 AM

When TechRepublic first made its appearance, I had received a frisbee and a little TechRepublic flag shortly after I registered and gave them some feedback. Coincidently, at the time, my daughter was an avid flag collector and was thrilled that her Daddy brought home such a nice surprise.

Glad to have you back!

Posted by: Luddite Geek | Jun 8, 2006 10:50:16 AM

What a fantastic post. Thank you!

Posted by: Rahul Jain | Jun 8, 2006 11:33:31 AM

One of the smallest, oldest, and yet most luxurious hotels in New Orleans is Le Pavillion - http://www.lepavillon.com/

Each night at 11 p.m. amidst their vast collection of antiques, droves of helpful servants, rich oriental rugs, and cool marble they serve peanut butter & jelly sandwiches with milk.

Posted by: Joel Lawhead | Jun 8, 2006 12:28:37 PM

Boy did I get a lot of great sites to visit from your blog and from all the comments. Thanks.


Posted by: Christy | Jun 8, 2006 6:13:40 PM

When you say 'Blow a stereotype' what exactly do you mean? Maybe I'm being dumb, or maybe I'm having trouble getting my mind out of the gutter - either way I think I'm missing something there.

Wonderful and inspirational post, though!

Posted by: Matt | Jun 8, 2006 7:33:54 PM

Great post with lots of examples, it really delivers the message.

Posted by: Baher | Jun 9, 2006 12:35:39 AM

Hi Kathy,

What a fantastic post to come back with, and good to see mTropolis getting a shout. Now there was a product to get passionate about. The finest piece of software I've ever used (t-shirt or no).

Posted by: Nick | Jun 9, 2006 7:46:26 AM

Veering off topic: we passed a silver motorhome the other day. Not that common in the UK. I don't know if it was an Airstream, but I thought it was georgous. I thought I was strange to think that, but I know I'm not alone.

Posted by: Paul Morriss | Jun 9, 2006 7:48:22 AM

Wow. One of the best posts I've read in some time. Long live the spirit of unboxing.

Posted by: Ryan | Jun 9, 2006 8:02:37 AM

Those bud vase mods are huge among Beetle Owners. My GF has a '98 Beetle, and has tricked out the bud vase in every conceivable fashion.

Posted by: Steph Mineart | Jun 9, 2006 9:52:29 AM

I ordered a pair of shoes from Zappos.com a few months ago. I placed the order at 11:00PM and paid for 1-day shipping. They were delivered to my house at 9:00AM the next day! It never even occurred to me that they would be shipped before the next business day. New shoes in less than 12 hours...it doesn't get any better than that!

Posted by: slugabed | Jun 9, 2006 11:12:13 AM

Thank you everyone yet again for so many great comments and for the welcome back! (I'm leaving again tomorrow, but this one is a much shorter trip to California, and I should have wifi).

Mahmoud: Yes, yes! If you delight your users, you won't NEED to give them something that constantly reminds them of your phone number (and you're right, that would probably just make things worse than if you'd not given them the gift at all).

Johannes: you've known me way too long and too well for that ; )
Besides, you KNOW who answers the email around here...

Henry: Good for CD Baby inspiring you to make that comment, and thanks for not spoiling the surprise : ) Side note: my latest post (the one after this one) includes a link to something Derek said. CDBaby rocks.

Marc: I hadn't read that one, thanks. My next door neighbor got a Scion recently. We had never spoken before (other than the usual apologies about our respective dogs' behavior), but when I saw the Scion I just casually mentioned it (while taking out the trash), and OH MAN -- the guy launched into a 45-minute tour. It was not boring, though -- he was so excited and seriously into it with all the little special customized things. And he's out there washing and polishing it and buffing it way too often.

Dori: that's too cute: )

Karyn: Hey, it dates me too then -- because even if I don't say it I still *think* "going the extra mile" ; ) Jumpin Jacks? Where do I get those?

Bren: I can relate. I'm just glad that his *talks* aren't more than an hour, because I could also listen to him all day.

Luddite Geek: Thanks for the frisbee/flag example -- what a great way to launch something...

Joel: The PBJ in the luxury hotel is now at the very TOP of my list for best examples of this. You painted an evocative picture... rich oriental rugs, vast collection of antiques, and yet I can smell the peanut butter and imagine the jelly dripping onto the 600-thread count egyptian cotton duvet... ; )

Matt: Your mind is definitely in the gutter. (or perhaps mine was, subconsciously OF COURSE). Replace "blow" with "break"?

Nick: Someone who remembers mTropolis! Oh, that makes me happy. We should all have banded together and revolted (or bought the company or something). The only thing I liked as much as mTropolis was the equally-fated ScriptX multimedia language from that joint venture between Apple and IBM. Just way too ahead of its time (or rather way too ahead of processing power).

Paul: If it was silver and gorgeous, and with a retro feel, it was most definitely an Airstream.

Ryan: I didn't even know there WAS such a term as "unboxing" (except in the Java 5.0 new language features). I even found the "unboxing" website. I wish I'd taken photos of my whole experience. I swear sometimes I want to order new Apple products JUST for the Unboxing. If my daughter ever "accidentally" opens a UPS box with Apple on the label, and performs the Unboxing without me, she's grounded for a year.

Steph: thanks for the real-life confirmation. I've been trying to peek in the windows of New Beetles whenever I see one in a parking lot. Unfortunately there are only three kinds of vehicles in Boulder, CO: Pickup, SUV, Subaru. There's some kind of law, I think...

slugabed: 12 hours from order to delivery? That's got to be some kind of record!

Cheers and thanks everyone.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jun 10, 2006 8:11:47 PM

Loved the article. Thought this might be a cute little addition :)


Posted by: Bill King | Jun 12, 2006 6:23:54 PM

I think that most humor works like this too -- you think you know where it's going, and then surprise! You weren't expecting that. There's some interesting research about the impact of surprise on the midbrain and dopamine levels (Reed Montague, Wolfram Schultz) that supports the idea that people are built to have a positive reaction to pleasant surprises.

Posted by: jdee | Jun 14, 2006 8:35:04 AM

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