Technology's Will-o-the-Wisp

Why is making something delightful so difficult? This struck me the other day when I came across an article about a Google Hangout that would allow selected Manchester United soccer fans to cheer on their favourite team from the front row, where the front row was really a series of computer monitors that formed the boards of the Old Trafford stadium. The fans could watch the game from home, but their faces would appear on the screens far bigger than life size for an international audience to see. 

I found the idea delightful. It brought a smile to my face as I imagined the die-hard fans learning they'd won. And I loved the idea that a soccer franchise and Google had not only thought up the notion but had allowed it to become a reality. 

I also realized that I'd missed that feeling of delight, at least as far as Web experiences, hardware and software goes. 

It's so rare to come across some device or wired experience that is enchanting, that you just, even for a little while, fall in love with. 

I really enjoy my Pebble smartwatch. But there is a single feature that is truly delightful. Late at night, in bed, if I wake up and want to see the time, I can just rotate my wrist quickly and the backlight on the Peeble comes to life with a dull blue glow. It's a simple, elegant feature that is endearing. 

 On my Android-based Nexus 7 tablet, the virtual valet Google Now can predict and offer up information to me before I know I need it by examining where I am, what I've searched for or what I've gotten email about. The first time I was near a cinema and it alerted me to the movies playing there it entranced me like a great magic trick. 

I take my iPad mini with me everywhere around the house, on commutes, to coffee shops. It's a delightful device that let's me carry out almost any task easily. It's the perfect size, weight and shape. And, it has that extra fairy dust that lets it transcend the merely useful and usable into the realm of deightful.

What is that rare essence? The Manchester United Google Hangout offers a clue. It's a gutsy, inventive idea that seems so right and so unexpected both at the same time. It's like the ideal ending to a great movie. The conclusion comes out of left field, but is perfectly satisfying - Fight Club, The Prestige and The Sting come to mind here. So, in part, delight might come from the obvious in hindsight. 

But the Hangout offers an other attribute of delight as well. It's an idea that you just love for its sheer audacity. It's never been done and is about to be done without a safety harness. It part of the reason we adore Cirque do Soliel or live theatre. The chance of failing, then the triumph of success engenders delight. 

And, the delightful anticipates. Think of Forest Whitaker in The Butler. He was taught to give his guests what they most needed before they asked. Google Now anticpates and often gets its suggestions right on the money in a charming way. 

The iPad has pre-cognition built into its bones and DNA. Its virtual keyboard imagines the words you mean. It's just right size for you hands, just the right weight for your arms. It turn itself off when you close its cover, and snaps to attention when you peel it back. It was designed as an accessible information appliance. That meant that Apple, unlike Samsung, had to park all sorts of features and functions that complicated the user experience.

And its user interface has one final aspect of the delightful - whimsy. The entire graphic display is built on a physics engine that lets icons zoom, panes slide and generally turns the screen into a garden of subtle delights. It is the unexpectedly fanciful nature of the interface that wins fans, even if they don't notice it.

So: surprise, simplicity, anticipation, audacity and whimsy. How hard is that? Extremely, apparently, since so few companies can deliver delight. They don't risk enough, care enough, imagine enough or make enough hard choices. They try to please everyone and delight no one. But I think delight should be a goal, not a will-o-the-wisp. It's what separates technology from magic - and the ordinary from the indispensable.