Jonathan Cutrell

The Anatomy of Surprise and Delight


A chance to surprise and delight someone by doing something a little exceptional goes a long way because it provides a smack of awesome humanity upside the head. - Alexis Ohanian [1]

Bill Murray has a reputation. Sure, to many he is an actor with a strong and highly memorable personality in each of his movies. But Bill Murray’s fame goes deeper.

If you have had the chance to experience what I’m talking about here, I’m certain you would agree: Bill Murray is a delightful person.

We know the norm for the famous population amongst us is to show up almost exclusively with “their kind”, highly guarded from much personal interaction with their fans.

Bill Murray has quite an opposite approach to this mindset. On occasion, Murray shows up in an unexpected place and acts in unexpected ways. These stories have become somewhat mythical, enough that people have adopted a practice of telling these stories, even if they never even happened.

What’s the big deal? Who cares that Bill Murray did something ordinary?

Well, the answer is quite simply that for Bill Murray, that ordinary thing was out of the ordinary. And not in the crazy Kanye-interruption kind of out of the ordinary, but rather in the “I’m going to give you a car for no good reason” kind. Bill Murray becomes what other actors won’t: a real life human being, doing real life things. What a delightful surprise indeed.

Ordinary Actions Aren’t Always Ordinary

A friend of mine once sent an email to Steve Jobs. If you have read anything about Jobs, you’ll know that he, on occasion, would send short (as in single-sentence) replies to random emails that hit his inbox.

What’s the big deal? Why does anyone care?

Because it’s out of the ordinary. It’s almost like winning the lottery in some sense - out of the seeming millions of emails that hit Steve’s inbox, he picked yours to respond to.

That email - a normal, ordinary thing - now hangs framed next to my friend’s desk to remind him every day what customer service looks like.

Steve knew his customer’s context. He knew his fans, and he knew what gets good press. He knew that the experience of seeing “Sent from my iPhone” tagged on an email from him would mean the world to someone, and yet it only took a few seconds for him. He knew that keeping the emails short actually added to the experience, to the lore: “and then he responded with a simple yes” sounds much more like the cold, in-the-elevator-firing Steve than “and then he responded.”

It’s not about fame.

Of course, fame gives you a much larger platform. Like a newborn baby learning how to walk, if you’re famous, people fawn over every little thing you do. So, when a famous person does something out of the ordinary, it is elevated. But it doesn’t require fame to surprise and delight people.

What it requires is context and personal connection.

In the early years of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian surprised and delighted authors whose posts hit #1 on Reddit with a digital golden alien email sent personally from him. Reddit hadn’t hit superfamous status, and yet this quirky, personal email elevated Ohanian in these authors' minds.

Photojojo created a simple interface enhancement that gives users a small bit of shock: pulling a lever unleashes the arm of a cartoon monster on the page. Kickstarter’s footer lets you cut the bottom off, revealing the message “Eureka! You’ve found our little secret.”, and inviting the discoverer to subscribe to their mailing list.

What does surprise and delight look like?

It really seems simple: do something outside of the expected behavior that will make someone smile. Take the routine out of what your users experience, and instead give them something dynamic and unpredictable. Provide a random, good (and perhaps even undeserved) customer service experience. Give things away on occasion for no reason, and chalk it up to PR investment. Make individual customers feel special just for being around.

Whatever you do, don’t fake it.

If you fake it, people will know. Don’t send out mass emails that attempt to make people feel individually noticed. Instead, let them know it is a mass email; this communicates that you respect their right to filter emails based on personal importance. Don’t provide something for free with stipulations. Don’t go halfway with these things; if you are going to surprise and delight your customers, you actually have to care primarily about surprising and delighting them, and secondarily about the effect that will have on your business. This isn’t business 101, where profits are the only thing that counts; this is about human intuition. If all you care about is money, you can wrap that in as many compliments as you want - I will eventually feel the weight of your fakeness. Cultivate real care for your customers, their problems, and their joys.

[1]Alexis Ohanian. Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed (Kindle Locations 1174-1175). Grand Central Publishing.

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Written by Jonathan Cutrell, Engineering Manager at Guild Education and podcast host at Developer Tea. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcutrell.