What Silicon Valley’s Favorite Word Says About Tech Priorities

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Photo: Marvin Orellana/New York Magazine

Not so long ago, Silicon Valley was filled with magic. For years after Steve Jobs described the original iPhone as a “revolutionary and magical product,” a rash of imitators jacked Jobs’s language to describe their own products. Social-media apps, big-data platforms, 3-D printers—anything pointing vaguely in the direction of the future was likened to an act of earthshaking magic, its inventor to a digital David Copperfield.

These days, though, magic is out, and “delight” has taken hold. Sit in any high-end coffee shop in San Francisco and you’ll see start-up founders pitching their delightful wares. “Delight” and “delightful” have become all-purpose marketing words in the tech world, trotted out to describe anything even marginally surprising or well made, in the hopes that even uttering the word will loosen the purse strings of investors and customers. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey has called Twitter ads “a delightful experience.” Sheryl Sandberg has vowed to show Facebook users “something … that really delights you.” Apple’s new corporate motto is “Simplify, perfect, delight.” Yahoo’s turnaround plan? You guessed it: “Inspiring and delighting users.” At a recent Google conference, I started a notebook tally of the number of times an executive said “delight,” and tapped out at 20. “It’s delightful,” Google executive Matias Duarte said of an app’s design. Android head Sundar Pichai touted the “simple, delightful experiences” contained in the latest version. “We can help you to create uniquely delightful experiences for your users,” product manager Ellie Powers promised the audience. From the sound of it, you’d think these were executives at Willy Wonka’s factory, not mobile developers in Mountain View.

When did the titans of tech start talking like kinder­garten teachers? Squarespace, a New York–based web-hosting company, says it aims to “delight our customers.” So does Vessel, a digital-video start-up, and DigitalOcean, a cloud-based hosting provider. (Because what is cloud computing for, if not to bring joy to the downtrodden?) Go to Portland in October and you’ll find “Delight 2014,” a two-day conference featuring speakers from Google, Facebook, and Uber. Even the old-line economy has gotten in on the action—when Frito-Lay introduced a new line of Cracker Jack in April, its press release promised “new flavors that will continue to delight our consumers.”

The heaviest use of “delight” seems to be concentrated within the consumer start-up world, among those who believe that good design can help them stand out from the competition. “The world is pretty bored with being able to accomplish tasks efficiently,” Rishi Mandal, the co-founder of urban-discovery app Sosh, told me. “The next question is, how do you accomplish tasks while creating a smile?”

Silicon Valley isn’t the only jargon culprit in the corporate world, of course. But tech’s semantic tics are more meaningful, because they dictate what kinds of innovations are rewarded and financed. Words like “functional” and “compatible” were important in the early days of Silicon Valley, when engineers were trying to bring order to messy technological infrastructure. But in the post-iPhone world, it’s no longer enough to make something work well; it has to feel good, too. This isn’t just a matter of taste—it’s a political shift. Emphasizing form over function is a way for designers, who typically sit lower on the Silicon Valley totem pole than their engineering counterparts, to remind executives that their opinions matter.

“Designers are constantly having to describe and prove our value to the rest of the tech world,” says Jenna Bilotta, a former Google designer and a co-founder of Avocado Software. The overuse of design concepts like “delight” among marketers and non-designer executives, she says, is “the side effect of that broken part of the system.”

Buzzwords inevitably stray from their original meaning, and even techies who traffic in delight will admit that the word has gotten diluted. “The Google keynote was like, guys, get a thesaurus,” says Josh Brewer, a former principal of design at Twitter. Jeff Cram, who organizes the Delight conference, agrees to an extent: “The word can feel trendy and overused, and can certainly get an eye-roll. But the movement is real.”

So what is that movement? The problem with delight is that it’s often applied to small, trifling details: the way an icon moves within an app, say, or the way a menu is triggered on a website. It’s not often applied to huge, ambitious projects—nobody would describe Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets as “delightful,” though they certainly are—nor does it cover inventions whose value is primarily pragmatic. (Air bags were a lifesaving product, but hardly a delightful one.) To describe an innovation as a “delight” is to preempt judgment of its utilitarian value, to ask it to be evaluated on aesthetic grounds rather than by the work it does. Delight can be wonderful, but it can also be dumb. In a pre-delight world, we may never have gotten Google Glass, Facebook’s Slingshot app, or Siri—inventions that are nothing if not triumphs of whimsy over usefulness.

Then there’s the word itself. Unlike tech jargon that sounds futuristic—pivot, disrupt, and scalable would all have made good names for the Jetsons’ robot dog—“delightful” is a throwback, a Victorian adjective taken out of mothballs and repurposed for the digital age. And, as with any buzzword, tin-eared abuse is inevitable. (“Delighting our customers every day with great, simple products and experiences is a priority for me,” wrote PayPal CEO David Marcus in a 2012 companywide memo, paragraphs before announcing that he was laying off about 325 people.) At its core, though, delight was always a designer’s shibboleth, a way to say: We put a lot of thought into this, and how to make it pleasurable.

But delight’s days may be numbered. Many of the designers and entrepreneurs I spoke to told me that there’s a new design principle taking over. That principle? “Frictionlessness,” or the idea that good design is best when it’s hidden. (Think of the way you get out of an Uber car without having to pay, or having your phone’s calendar app adjust your appointments automatically when you switch time zones.) Frictionlessness and delight aren’t mutually exclusive, but they stem from different ideas about what’s important. And indeed, if you look through the tech product announcements and conference speeches, “frictionlessness” (and its cousin, “seamlessness”) is making inroads onto delight’s turf. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella used both “seamless” and “friction-free” in a recent memo to employees. Facebook now swears by a principle called “frictionless sharing,” which aims to make it as easy as possible for users to post and engage with the posts of others. Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, has said, “Friction is the biggest product thing we’re working on.”

The popularity of “frictionless” design may stem from a feeling that too much delight can be distracting. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is a well-known delight junkie, having once told Amazon shareholders that a successful product “surprises, delights, and earns trust.” But earlier this year, when Amazon released its first-ever smartphone, it became a cautionary tale. Amazon’s phone, dubbed the Fire, had a “dynamic perspective” feature that made icons appear to pop off the screen, but when it came to nuts and bolts, the phone fell short. Reviewers panned the gadget, and Wired wondered if Amazon had “fallen too deeply in love with the idea of delightful interactions.”

For those of us who depend on companies like Amazon and Google to create the products than run our lives, the delight backlash is overdue. Perhaps, with seamless operation becoming Silicon Valley’s metric of choice, the fetishization of design will give way to a renewed emphasis on what works. Now, that would be delightful.

*This article appears in the August 11, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.