Here’s John on Firmness, Commodity, and Delight

Editor’s Note: Here’s another post from John Cartan, some heavy philosophical musing for your Wednesday. Personally, I cringe when people throw around the word “delight” when talking about software. Usually, it’s just noise, considering how low the bar has been, so delight when framed in software terms means a lot less than it does in real life terms.

Consider the following statements you might have heard. “Apple makes software that delights users.” “Apple makes software that just works.” So, yeah, that.

Interesting nuggets about John, he’s been writing code since the era of punch cards. Think that sounds hard? He writes entirely via the touch keypad on his iPad.

Yup, he pounded out his Leap Motion review, more than 1,000 words, without an external keyboard. That’s dedication to the intended experience. 

Anyway, enjoy and find the comments.

Firmness, Commodity, and Delight

John Cartan, Applications User Experience, Emerging Interactions

At a recent conference, a young developer asked me a really thoughtful question, one that has come up many times over my career as a user experience architect:

Is there a difference between a beautiful interface and an interface with a great user experience?

References to beautiful or pretty interfaces get at something that architects of buildings call “delight”. The first century Roman architect Vitruvius said that for a building to succeed it needed three essential qualities: firmness, commodity, and delight. I think the same is true for software architecture.

By firmness, he meant that the building should not fall down. By analogy, an app should not crash, freeze, expose bugs, or lose data. A firm app is consistently reliable; users will quickly learn to avoid apps that are not firm.

Commodity means that the building allows and facilitates whatever use is intended for it. A commodious app helps the user efficiently accomplish the task at hand without ever getting in the way. Commodity in an app is only possible if you deeply understand that task – and the user who is trying to perform it.

A delightful building is attractive to enter and pleasant to move around in. A delightful car is beautiful and fun to drive; a delightful hand tool exudes craftsmanship and feels good to the touch. In the same way, a delightful app is a pleasure to use, not just because it has pretty icons, but because the attention to detail, clean layout, and thoughtful design empowers the user and makes her feel in full control.

The key thing to notice about these three qualities is that they are interdependent. A house that falls down on you is not delightful. The same attention to detail that creates a delightful user experience also tends to create a more firm and commodious experience.

There is a common misconception in the software industry that delight is an optional feature that you can bolt on at the end of a release cycle if there’s time. UX people are sometimes called in at the last minute to “make it pretty”. But this never works; delight is something that has to be baked in from the beginning.

Another misconception is that it is somehow frivolous or even unprofessional for a serious business application to be delightful. But delight contributes directly to productivity. And app that is fun to use will be used more often, empowering each user, increasing efficiency, and improving morale.

For me, then, a beautiful interface and an interface with a great user experience are one and the same.

AboutJohn Cartan

I am a designer, inventor, and writer currently working as a Senior Design Architect in the Oracle User Experience Emerging Technologies group.


  1. I would be interested to see if in the storied annals of this blog’s history, any other author has ever referenced a 1st century Roman architect?

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