Book Review: The Power of Moments

Published Feb 12, 2018

Exceptional experiences are created and destroyed in the key moments that define a brand. That’s the premise of Chip and Dan Heath’s latest book, The Power of Moments (Simon & Schuster, 2017). It’s not a particularly new idea, but one that’s so often forgotten in the blinding heat of daily firefighting. The Heath Brothers contend that:

“in the short term, we prioritize fixing problems over making moments, and that choice usually feels like a smart tradeoff.”

But is it? In my previous life as a Gartner analyst, I talked exhaustively (and perhaps exhaustingly) about the idea of cultivating magic moments. In my research, I found that, far more often than not, customer experience was treated like a game of whack-a-mole: problems appeared, and they were summarily whacked down. This constant seek-and-destroy cycle kept the lights on, but it was hardly noticed by customers. Why? Because correcting fundamentally bad experiences, at best, merely delivers on a customer’s most basic expectations.

Where’s the magic in that?

The Heath Brothers say you need to do better. This starts with designing and orchestrating these magic moments. This means anticipating and responding to customer needs and using these moments to not just satisfy, but to delight–creating indelible moments that define a brand through their sheer, well, magic.

They offer the illustrative, if unrepresentative, example of Ritz-Carlton, a hospitality brand known for cultivating exceptional customer experiences. Chip and Dan share the story of a young boy who, after traveling with his family to the company’s Amelia Island resort, leaves behind his treasured stuffed animal affectionately known as “Joshie.” Rather than just returning the toy via parcel post, the Ritz-Carlton staff takes the exceptional step of documenting Joshie’s indulgences during his extended stay. The boy was then treated with a triptych of pics of his beloved companion lounging by the pool, driving a golf cart, hanging out with the hotel parrot, even getting a massage, complete with the requisite cucumber slices covering his beady eyes.

The Heath Brothers call this “breaking the script,” where the script represents the expectation of a stereotypical experience. Joshie’s owner—and perhaps more importantly, his owner’s parents—won’t soon forget this experience, which is anything but stereotypical.

But you’d expect such things from Ritz-Carlton, a luxury hospitality brand offering an ultra-premium experience at an ultra-premium price point. What about brands that aren’t exactly of this ilk? The Heath Brothers offer the example of LA’s highest-rated hotel, which isn’t exactly the Ritz-Carlton. In fact, at first blush, The Magic Castle Hotel looks fairly pedestrian with its kitschy motor lodge aesthetic and budget-conscious price point. It’s a long way from the Ritz-Carlton.

But that doesn’t mean the hotel can’t seek to delight customers; it just needs to be a bit creative about it. Accordingly, the Magic Castle has instituted a “Popsicle Hotline,” that invites overheated lounge lizards lazing by the pool to summon a maître de of sorts by lifting the receiver of a conspicuously placed phone—the Popsicle Hotline. This prompts the delivery of the splendid popsicle as a delightfully absurd silver-platter spectacle. The hotel could have easily gotten away with a self-service freezer—or less, for that matter.

But, again, where’s the magic?

How do you identify the moments that delight? The Heath Brothers offer a model. They suggest that these moments are found in moments of:

  • Elevation—these moments rise above the everyday, creating not just forgettable contentment, but memorable delight. This is the moment you lift the receiver and a popsicle appears. Not exactly what you were expecting, right?
  • Insight—defining moments that rewire our understanding of ourselves in the world, causing us to “trip over the truth” and, in that moment, recognize what we’ve been somehow missing all along. There’s no going back following these galvanizing moments.
  • Pride—which shines a light on our accomplishments, pointing out key milestones and, better yet, stringing together a series of milestones that we would have otherwise missed.
  • Connection—adding a social dimension to these moments to heighten these moments through the power of shared experience.

You can probably already see how these principles apply to the design of product experiences.

For example:

  • Elevation—Imagine an onboarding experience that welcomes you into the product, coordinated with a personal email, phone call and some sort of welcome package of branded swag sent by mail. The goal here is to design peaks into the product experience by breaking the script and doing something other than the somewhat impersonal and rote experience customers might ordinarily expect from a software vendor.
  • Insight—Imagine a product that shines a light on the problem it solves, allowing users to see ROI accruing every time they engage. By exposing a pain that may have been felt but not quantified—and by demonstrably advertising the impact on that problem—users feel they’ve tripped over the truth and are consequently hooked by what’s bound to become a habit-forming product (for more on this topic, you may want to also read this review of Nir Eyal’s book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products).
  • Pride—Similarly, imagine a product that shines a light on your own personal achievement, allowing you to see how you’re doing against yourself, your peers, the community. Like leaderboards, badges and other artifacts of gamification, these techniques help create engagement by way of pride and the innate human desire to compete.
  • Connection—Imagine a product that allows you to share your best work with a community of users and, in the process, create connections with like-minded peers from whom you can also learn. Imagine a product that made users feel a bit less alone in the universe.

Of course, simply focusing on delight doesn’t always pay the bills, nor do these sorts of exceptional experiences always scale. It reminds me of an analogy often used by a product manager I once worked with: you need to eat your broccoli before you eat your dessert. What he meant was there are certain things you must prioritize, however unsexy and uninspiring they may be, before you indulge in the investments that excite you. Said another way, to use the Heath Brothers vocabulary, you need to fill the pits before you build the peaks.

Note: Dan Heath will discuss the power of moments as a headline speaker at Pendomonium 2018, March 20-21, in Raleigh, NC. Register now.

(Full disclosure: Pendomonium and ProductCraft are produced by Pendo, my employer).