Wonder Gestures in User Experience – KLM Surprise & More


At the heart of much art is surprise. And in the art of your work might be surprising people who matter – namely, your tribes, audiences, readers, patrons, customers, clients.

My designer told me Friday on the phone, “I saw something the other day and thought, ‘Jeffrey would love that!’ So, expect a surprise in the mail soon.” Few things bring me greater joy. Seriously. I love small surprises. Better, I appreciate being seen for who I am and when people see the good in me.

Honing that ability – to see and bring out the good in others – can bring joy, wonder, and meaning to your tribal exchanges.

When have you surprised a client or customer or student with a gesture that speaks directly to who that person is, wants, or needs? Such gestures are at the heart of many intimate relationships. And surprise is at the heart of art. So it might make sense to consider how you can make wonder gestures to your tribes.

Wonder gestures are small acts that bring unexpected delight, beauty, or self-recognition to someone else. And wonder gestures are becoming the essence of a new way of doing business drawn from an ancient way of making art.

Emotions and User Experience
Last week, I interviewed a bright, innovative, and especially methodical entrepreneur whose work has made significant contributions in a relatively short time to creative professionals. He started speaking about “user experience” with products, how he had been thinking about it since his college days. He spoke about the importance of efficiency and productivity in user experience.

Then I asked him about emotions. “How important is the consideration of users’ emotions when designing products and thinking about user experience?” He paused. “That’s a good question,” he said. He had a good answer, too, which I’ll share with in a later post. But it’s clear that emotions and user experience are a relatively new pairing. And I predict that within the next year or two, we will all be engaged in this conversation about emotions.

Emotions drive us. We might speak with reason and think we act based upon rational flow charts and pro-con lists or market analysis. But new science, that very arbiter of reason born during “The Age of Enlightenment” (i.e., coming out of the dark ages of emotional faith and into the light of reason) begs to differ.

Mounds of recent  studies in social psychology (Jonthan Haidt, Dacher Keltner) and social economics (Robert Frank of Cornell) and cognitive science (Mark Johnson, George Lakoff) keep reminding us that e.e. cummings just might have been onto something when he wrote, “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things /will never wholly kiss you.”

Not that as a writer, solo-preneur, or designer, you need to be kissing your audience. At least not literally. But, figuratively, yes. Kiss them. (and writers can, in fact, kiss their readers with syntax)

We can hone the craft of our “user experience” by learning from masters of art.

The Aesthetic Experience & the User Experience
Any writer who says she writes solely for herself will likely be a lonely artist. The artists I admire are not ones who placate mass audiences. They are ones struck by a vision, who discover how to execute the ruins of that vision (thanks, Annie Dillard, for that metaphor), and who labor extensively “behind the scenes” to elicit a complex emotional experience for an audience. Of course, drama is the most obvious and immediate example from which that metaphor “behind the scenes” derives.

Fathom the unseen hours of toil and labor that go into executing and perfecting a play or film so your “user experience” involves some alchemical mix of wonder, surprise, fear, compassion, and self-recognition. All of that auditioning, casting, scene-making, rehearsals, budgeting and bickering, doubt, and more so you can have a memorable experience that might make your life a little richer, your self-awareness a little deeper.

It’s an ethos of labor, it’s a motivation of “behind the scenes” toil that drives the people at Apple so you can have delightful experiences in the iWorld.

It’s a similar ethos that drove the Dutch Royal KLM Airlines in their “KLM Surprise: an experiment on how happiness spreads” project during the 2010 holiday travel season.

The problem KLM identified: Passengers often dread holiday travel. It’s rife with tension and volatile emotions (See Steve Martin in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles).

The clever solution: Get a KLM Surprise team to go on Twitter and Foursquare to see who’s mentioning that they’re traveling on KLM during the holiday season. Find out from their social media comments and profiles some personal information about their motives for travel. Purchase a small gift for the passenger that will speak to the passenger’s personal needs for travel. Based on the Gravatar or Twitter or Foursquare photo, find that person in the airport terminal, and surprise him or her with the gift.

The result: Over 1 million mentions for KLM on Twitter within days, numerous customers who came away with a memorable surprise and ready to tell others about it, a shift in how KLM is perceived (The airlines that surprises!), and a shift in the emotional experience of holiday travel.

KLM made their business an artful experience by evoking delightful surprise in individuals.

So, I ask again: How do you go out of your way to surprise individual clients, to bring memorable delight to their experience with you?

Some Ideas
1. Get to know your clients personally. You don’t have to research your clients’ social media. You can have them fill out a simple personal questionnaire about their interests, passions, favorite artists and authors and thinkers, people who inspire them, birthday, and so forth.

2. Send surprise packages. It’s not unusual for my clients, team members, or vendors to receive in the mail a book or other item related to their respective projects and passions. Sometimes the delivery comes as a spontaneous delivery. Other times, it comes around Christmas. Last Christmas, I mailed each of my 22 clients a personalized letter printed on rose paper or some other kind of paper I thought that each client would appreciate, that somehow reflected something good that I saw in that specific client.

3. Make the exchange delightful, if not delightfully surprising. It’s impossible for me to expect to bring delightful surprise to all 15 or so client meetings I have in a week. Of my 20-plus clients, most of them live in other parts of the United States or beyond; so, our exchange is limited to email, Skype vid, and phone.

For those who make the trek to my farmhouse studio, they have a cup of hot tea waiting for them. Like a bartender for the tee-totaler, I try to remember what kind of tea each client prefers. That my wife makes her own line of fresh-leafed herbal tea – some made from the Western and Chinese herbs she grows and dries on our homestead – adds an utterly unique flavor to the experience of the face-to-face exchange with clients. I also periodically have a book perched on the conference table that I think will pique a client’s curiosity.

I’m trying to find ways to create delight exchanges for my long-distance clients.

4. Include Wonder Gestures & Delight Exchanges in your planning. I take time each Sunday to hone my weekly schedule and priorities. Part of that planning is imagining – literally imagining and feeling – each client with whom I will have an exchange that week. I review each client’s file, feel again what excites me about the respective project and what must be exciting the client, and also try to imagine where – existentially and emotionally – that client is in the creative project phase. What subtle “behind-the-scenes” acts can I do – other than prepare exceptionally well and deliver outstanding service – that will make our exchange that much smoother, more meaningful, and memorable for us both? I don’t always have answers, but just raising the question and spending time thinking and feeling it primes me to be more cognitively and emotionally present for my clients.

And if you think it counter-intuitive to “design” for a Wonder Gesture, then you miss the secret element of great art I’ve touched on here – the artist’s great effort to create an effortless, enjoyable, memorable experience for an audience.

Part of the art of a Wonder Gesture or Delight Exchange is for the client to not know the ‘behind-the-scenes’ toil you went to on their behalf. Can you imagine if after a film or play, the entire crew came out to explain to you how much trouble they went through to make you delighted (or disturbed, depending upon the play or flick)? That’s more of a Martyr Gesture, and we don’t want to go there. So, make the gesture or exchange feel effortless.

Giving our tribe or readers or clients more wonder and delight is not about you. It’s about the exchange between and among two or more people involved in a creative endeavor. It’s a reminder that we are emotional creatures who, in the long run, will be better off as a species if we bring out the good ones in and between each other.

Further reading:
Surprise! Shock Yourself Into Creating Memorable Art & Good Word-of-Mouth by myself at Tracking Wonder blog, PsychologyToday.com

Intimate Gratitude: ways to go beyond client appreciation at A Hut of Questions

Gary Snyder & the Need to Feel Deeply in Your Creative Work at A Hut of Questions

How to Kiss Your Readers with the Syntax of Things at A Hut of Questions

Drop in the Hut
One more time: How do you go out of your way to surprise individual clients, to bring memorable delight to their experience with you?

See you in the woods,

Other ways to connect:

Twitter: JeffreyDavis108
Fan Page
Psychology Today: Tracking Wonder blog
The Wonder of It All: A Workshop in Writing, Yoga, & Wonder at the UNM Taos Writer’s Conference
The 3 Highlights Blog
On the Right Track Monthly Newsletter
The Journey from the Center to the Page (Penguin 2004; Monkfish Pub., revised & updated ed. 2008)
Custom Coaching & Team Consulting for writers, creatives, solo-preneurs, & schools
The good ol’ phone: 845.679.9441

Share This Article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Love the idea of a “wonder gesture,” it is wonderful. One thing that I love to do is very simple: write thank-you notes. Like real notes that get sent through snail mail. I find it so satisfying to let clients and friends and family know how much I appreciate them and the recipients love it, because not many people actually write real letters or notes these days. Another thing I love to do is send Moleskine journals. Because, really, the world would be a better place if everyone wrote in one.

    1. Charlotte: Thanks for this example. Writing thank-you notes is precisely what I think makes a significant difference in how we relate. Handwritten notes especially seem to mean something more in this digital age. Reminds me – I intend to pick up some cards for my clients this weekend.

      Thanks for dropping in, Charlotte. I love what you’re doing on your blog, BTW.