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 were 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 realm) 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.

  • 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 those who attended Webstock, myself included, who weren't expecting someone quite so fun, down to earth, and approachable. 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!

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 single handedly 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 traveled in one more than 8,000 miles to promote a movie.

  • 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.

  • 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 app bought 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 Web site 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?

This article is reprinted from Creating Passionate Users.

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Kath Sierra has been interested in the brain and artificial intelligence since her days as a game developer (Virgin, Amblin', MGM). She is the co-creator of the bestselling Head First series and is the founder of one of the largest community Web sites in the world, She blogs at Creating Passionate Users