An Event Apart Atlanta

Designing Small Kindness in Customer Experience Gaps

Four days ago I grudgingly peeled myself out of bed at the crack of dawn for an early flight to Atlanta. I piloted myself through the motions of parking and checking in, survived the self-conciousness that only having strangers watch you put your belt back on on can create, and boarded the plane, looking forward to nothing more than clipping in and closing my eyes. The pre-flight dog and pony show began and , having not flown Delta for quite some time, I cracked one eye open to the safety video to see if it still featured the finger-wagging Deltalina.

Congratulations Delta! You did what no other airline has convinced me to do in the last few years: I watched the safety video in its entirety! The content was standard FAA-regulation, but the accompanying visuals were so clever and unexpected that I couldn’t tear my (very tired) eyes away. I giggled as a full-sized robot was forced to power down at landing, a Jenga game was disrupted by semi-turbulent air, cartwheels in the aisle were prohibited, and a grandmother was forced to stow her giant electronic boom-box.

True, Delta had me as a captive audience, but I was also a captivated audience on the edge of my seat, very much looking forward to whatever quirky visual would show next. Superbowl ads may get more press and carry more prestige than a mandatory in-flight safety video, but I am infinitely more impressed with Delta’s unexpected foray into creating small moments that matter in their customer experience.

I was flying to Atlanta to attend  (other than my first voyage to the Coca-Cola mothership)  An Event Apart, “the design conference for people who make websites.” The general shift in our industry toward a customer experience approach model has been forefront in my mind and after attending two days of superb presentations from razor-sharp minds, it’s clear that I’m not the only one thinking about providing good customer experience.

In the closing session address titled, “It’s a Great Time to Be an Experience Designer”, Jared Spool spoke with great ferocity about the subject and how to provide immediate impact. “Experience happens not in the core, but in the gaps,” he explained.

Surprise and Delight 2.0: The Small Kindness

At Connective DX, we’ve been talking a lot about the idea of ‘surprise and delight’ in the last year . My favorite take away from this week’s conference is what I consider to be Surprise and Delight 2.0, and that idea is giving users “a small kindness.”

Coined by Aarron Walter, Director of User Experience at MailChimp, a small kindness refers to any kind of positive emotional moment that will compel users to tell friends, peers, and associates about your brand.

Take Dropbox for mobile as an example. Software download screens are a dime a dozen (close your eyes and I guarantee you can conjure a vision of a basic layout) whose initial goal is to funnel you into the correct device download option. Dropbox has offered their users a small kindness by going the extra mile with a killer yet simplistic design on a hand-illustrated background. And the subtle bouncing of those devices? Be still my heart! It’s just so gosh darn cute I want to tell everyone about this. I’ve had a small emotional moment that now connects me to the Dropbox brand. (Newsflash: the bouncing works on their mobile site too!)

This idea of a small kindness wound its way through many a talk at the conference once my ears were attuned. In his talk “The Ten Commandments of Web Design”, Jeffrey Zeldman’s very first commandment that Thou Shalt Entertain provided an example of the most genius 404 page copy. The site is for a Canadian Government party and the 404 copy is simple. “Ottawa’s Broken. And so is this link.” Have seven short words ever conveyed so much on an error page? On the web? I have an immediate emotional response to this small kindness offered to me.

In Walter’s talk, he asserted that if our brands are doing a good job, they will make people feel something. Be you a Dallas-based chef letting simple photography speak for your work or Betabrand, a magazine-styled website that “‘also happens to sell clothing,” whose every photograph on the site is user-generated–providing the opportunity for your users, patients, customers, clients, team members, or guests to create an emotional response will help bond them to you.

This means we must be doing more than the bare minimum–it’s called that for a reason! In Delta’s safety video, they started with the FAA-regulated core and continued to design small kindness experiences into the gaps.

Paying it Forward

On my flight home, I sat buckled into the window seat, ready (and somewhat excited?) to watch the safety information video again to see if it was as clever as I remembered. Just before take-off, a young family of four made their way down the aisle to the two empty chairs in my row. With every seat in my area filled it was obvious that the parents were going to have to split up. The father offered me $40 to switch him seats so his family might remain together. (I believe the $40 payout was to cover the inconvenience of my downgrading to a middle seat. Airlines, take notice!) I absolutely wouldn’t take his money but gladly gave up my seat, paying forward the idea of a small kindness I’d just so recently learned about.

The safety information video began, and from my middle seat I gleefully watched a different version of the same FAA-mandated content. Yet another small kindness was passed my way from Delta as a new flight attendant lead me through a bevy of visual gags, including a cowboy with a pink suitcase, signs prohibiting squash and chainsaw juggling, and a man in a neck brace unable to look behind him for the nearest exit in the case of emergency.

Again, I was riveted from beginning to end. During the flight, several flight attendants profusely thanked me for switching seats with the father and told me the father had indicated anything I wanted from the food and beverage cart was on his tab.

Though Delta couldn’t have masterminded the situation or the people involved, in examining my actions all roads lead back to a positive kindness I felt from the Delta brand. Small kindness after small kindness was put in my path–the videos, the father, the flight attendants–and my experience is positive proof that a brand’s emotional influence is shared by all; from the stakeholders who approved a quirky safety video to the a HR manager who hired compassionate and customer-service oriented flight attendants and all the way to the brand customer’s actions themselves! Delta is doing something right. One small kindness at a time.

  • What’s brilliant about what Delta did with their videos is that they put in a little extra work to take the unpleasantness out of a mandatory burden for their customers. It reminds me of Dave Wieneke wielding that ax at Delight 2012 — they clearly are wielding the ax for better experiences.

  • What’s brilliant about what Delta did with their videos is that they put in a little extra work to take the unpleasantness out of a mandatory burden for their customers. It reminds me of Dave Wieneke wielding that ax at Delight 2012 — they clearly are wielding the ax for better experiences.

  • Melissa Wolf

    Brilliant. Anyone else notice President Lincoln at 3:15 in the first video? Natalie – great writeup. 🙂

    • Natalie Williams

      How did I miss Honest Abe? Guess I’ll have to fly again…

  • A day or two ago I heard an NPR program about the American/US Air merger and the state of the airlines industry, and one guest said that over the past few years Delta had transformed itself and now offered, in his opinion, the best in-flight experience of any of the airlines. I guess this is just a small example of that and of them sweating the details.

  • Virgin America’s safety videos remind me of the TripIt explainer video — line-art animation with great humor, delivered by someone really, really mellow. They’re quite delightful…

    • Natalie Williams

      Gene, we all know I’m not hip enough to fly Virgin Air. 😉

  • Amy

    Air New Zealand, while completely capitalizing on the Lord of the Rings, created the most entertaining safety information video i’ve ever seen — complete with Gollum and a whole bevy of characters from Middle Earth. First time in a long time that I, too, finally paid attention. And enjoyed it!

  • We’ve avoided Delta for years! Is it time to forgive and forget? Delightful report Nat!

  • Erica {let why lead}

    How interesting—the tie-in between Delta’s small kindness and yours. I wonder if they had any idea when creating the videos that they could have that effect. Also, that guy was really sweet to offer you both money and then free snacks!

  • What’s brilliant about what Delta did with their videos is that they put
    in a little extra work to take the unpleasantness out of a mandatory
    burden for their customers. they clearly are wielding the ax for better

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