What, Exactly, Is Delight? Can It Be Designed and Measured?

In an experimental course, students bring smiles to couples dealing with dementia. 

When we say we are “delighted,” what do we mean? Can a delightful experience be thoughtfully designed and evaluated? Thalia Wheatley, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences, is looking for answers to those questions. So this spring, she teamed up with Lorie Loeb, a research professor of computer science and director of the DALI Lab, to teach an experimental course called “Impact Design.”

Working in five teams, students learned how to combine psychology with what Loeb calls “the tools of design thinking” to create delightful experiences for five couples identified by the Aging Resource Center (ARC) at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center as ideal partners in the project. ARC has a program called “Arts and Dementia,” and was looking for new tools and methods to enrich the lives of people it serves. In each of the couples, one partner has mild dementia and the other is a caregiver. During the term, each student team got to know one couple by visiting them in their home and learning what they have enjoyed doing together over the years, but may not be able to do as easily now because of memory problems or physical constraints.

“This class looked at three questions,” said Loeb at a final presentation by the students. “We define impact in this case as ‘delight.’ What are the factors that go into creating a delightful experience for someone? How do you design and create such an experience so that it is emotionally meaningful? And how do you measure how successful you have been?”

Jessica Campanile ’20, on the blue team, worked with Bill and Sue Parmenter. “They opened their hearts and home to us, basically a group of 20-year-old strangers. That was so touching,” said Campanile. “They’re grounded in gratefulness. They love music and nature, and really value their friendships.” So the blue team threw a musical “gratefulness garden party” for the couple at their house, inviting guests to write notes of gratitude for the Parmenters’ friendship, and posting the notes on a “gratefulness tree” depicted on a large poster. The highlight, Campanile said, was when Bill Parmenter sang a song to his wife that he had tried to sing at their wedding long ago, but, back then, had nervously forgotten the words.

“This time, he remembered all of them,” Campanile said.

Delight is not easy to quantify, but the team surveyed the couple and their guests. They even counted how many smiles they saw in the audience and how many tissues were needed to dab at joyful tears. By those measures, they reached their goal, which was to bring happiness to a couple they had come to admire.   

At an end-of-term reception for all the students and couples in the Baker-Berry Innovation Classroom, Sue Parmenter said the blue team “did a great job building anticipation about what was going to happen, because we really didn’t know what they were planning. To anticipate something joyful in our lives was huge, and they really did it. They were amazing.”

Tailoring their designs to distinctive personalities, the teams created delight in different ways. The yellow team, working with Nance Driscoll and Ken Kalb, capitalized on the couple’s sense of humor with a game modeled on the irreverent “Cards Against Humanity.”  “We rewrote the content to be relevant to an older generation,” said team member Camila Caldas ’17.

Students worked with the couple to create cards the couple could easily hold, incorporating Driscoll’s artwork into the design. “Attention to detail is a big part of user-experience design, and students used what they learned in the class to make sure everything about the experience was thoughtful and accessible,” said Loeb.

“We loved the game and are telling everyone about it. These kids are going to save the world with laughter,” Driscoll said at the reception.

The orange team noticed that waiting for appointments at the Aging Resource Center can be a bit boring for some couples, so they created a whiteboard with magnetic tiles, including scenic photographs that spur travel memories. Making the mosaic spurs so much spirited conversation, said Wheatley, that the center now keeps one in its waiting room.

Jessie Colin ’18 made the tiles. She said she loved “Impact Design” because it connected her to a community beyond campus. “It’s so easy to forget that we are citizens of a greater world, and you can get so wrapped up in your own space. But one of the great things about this class was the ability to break that barrier, meet people outside your bubble, and connect with them on a real-person level. For me that’s so gratifying.”

“Impact Design” was part of a Social Impact Practicum Initiative supported by the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) and the Dartmouth Center for Service. “Creating an experience of delight for individuals with dementia at the Aging Resource Center illustrated not only the immense appetite that students have for human-centered design—“COCO 18” had a lengthy waitlist—but also the impressive outcomes that students are capable of when they are creating from a foundation of human connection and empathy,” said Ashley Doolittle, associate director of academic and service engagement at the Center for Service.

As for Wheatley, this course has confirmed one of her hunches: that delight is related to discovery. “These couples were delighted—they are delightful—because they are young at heart. They like learning new things, and they like learning them together.”