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Products for CX

Built for Joy: How Product Designers Cultivate Happiness

Around 40% of our happiness comes from our experiences. How can products contribute in a positive way?

More than 70% of Candy Crush Saga users quit the app feeling unhappy. Two-thirds of Facebook users do the same. Other popular mobile apps like Reddit (58%), Weibo (57%), and Tinder (56%) aren’t far behind.

The research comes from the Center for Humane Technology, a non-profit founded by ex-Google employee turned technology activist Tristan Harris. Working in concert with screen time-tracking app Moment, Harris and his team monitored 200,000 iPhone users, tracking the time spent in various apps and their happiness after sessions.

They proved what many people believed: many of our most popular products are rendering us unhappy. 

It wasn’t all bad news, though. They also discovered that many apps had the opposite effect. Not surprisingly, meditation services Calm and Headspace both left 99% of their users feeling better. Weather, podcasting, and music apps all created happy users, too. And perhaps most surprisingly, Google Calendar engendered quite a bit of joy in its users.

What the research didn’t delve into was why certain apps engender happiness while others foster unhappiness. (Although it did discover a strong correlation between time in apps and happiness.) For product designers who are increasingly concerned about creating joyful experiences, rather than merely addictive ones, it remains an elusive challenge.

The duality of product happiness

Happiness is no simple concept; it’s multifaceted and multidimensional. The drivers behind our happiness are diverse: part-genetic (50%), part-circumstantial (10%), and part-experiential (40%). The experiences we have with everyday products, therefore, weigh heavily on our emotions. Even within those experiences, there is further nuance.

Products do not merely engender happiness as one amorphous emotion. “Happiness… includes both a hedonic component, which arises from the experience of pleasure, and a eudaimonic component, which arises from self-actualization and the fulfillment of human potential,” wrote a quartet of product design researchers at Imperial College London (ICL). Both qualities are necessary for “greater expression of happiness and long-lasting flourishing.” 

Consider companies that sprinkle quirky, cute, or whimsical design elements throughout their products. Email marketing platform MailChimp is a prime example. Its logo and mascot (a winking chimpanzee called Freddie) appear throughout the user journey. When a user sends a campaign, the action is celebrated with an animated high five from Freddie and a burst of hedonistic pleasure.

“Animation can be so powerful,” said Aarron Walter, former Director of User Experience at MailChimp. “It can create an emotional experience that connects with you, and it’s also a way of communicating that there are people behind the software who understand your journey and challenges you face here and we’re reflecting that back to you in this interaction.”

Moments such as Freddie’s high five make products joyful to use, but it’s hard to imagine a tool or service succeeding solely on such isolated and fleeting bursts of happiness.

“Positive emotions alone are not fully descriptive of happiness, as they are often momentary forms of pleasure,” explained the ICL researchers. “It is when they co-occur with eudaimonic factors such as personal growth and meaning that they can trigger a greater expression of happiness and long-lasting flourishing.”

Eudaimonic happiness or contentment is achieved through self-actualization and achieving purpose in one’s life. In other words, products must not just feel nice to use, but also help us achieve something.

Considering this component of happiness, it’s perhaps less surprising that functional apps like weather forecasting and calendars appeared so highly on the Center for Humane Technology’s happiness leaderboard. The former ensures you don’t end up drenched by a surprise rainstorm. The latter keeps your routine on track. While they might lack the whimsy of MailChimp, each helps its users lead the lives they want to lead.

Another key distinction is between control and empowerment.

“The problem is the hijacking of the human mind: systems that are better and better at steering what people are paying attention to, and better and better at steering what people do with their time than ever before,” said technology ethicist Tristan Harris in an interview for Wired. Streaks, endless scrolls, autoplay—each subtle design feature targets a foible in human psychology, wresting control away from users.

On the other side, you have apps that relinquish control to the user, allowing them to design the experience and functionality they want. At Notion, for example, its designers strive to equip users with the tools and apparatus they need to achieve their goals—whatever they are.

Emma Auscher
Emma Auscher, Head of Customer Experience at Notion

“Our mission is to make software toolmaking ubiquitous,” explains Emma Auscher, head of customer experience at Notion. “In order to achieve this, we strive for the simplest and most flexible system of concepts, that solves the most problems, and opens up endless possibilities. We want to make sure our platform can be a blank canvas for people to create and innovate on, intuitively.”

Product designers are perhaps well-advised to follow Auscher’s lead and promote customization. Their job is not to force experiences upon users, but to empower them to create their own. They must make available all the things that are essential to success and leave users in charge of forging their own path.

What happiness-focused design frameworks are there?

Theories about happiness and its constituent components are one thing. Designing products that successfully cultivate happiness is another entirely. For product designers seeking to design tools and services that leave their users smiling, it’s unclear what elements of Calm should they borrow and which parts of Facebook should they avoid.

Fortunately, the past decade has seen a flurry of research into happiness-focused design frameworks. Two leading approaches—possibility-driven design and positive design framework—have enjoyed particularly energetic support.

Possibility-driven design

Traditionally, design follows a problem-solution workflow. For example, large groups find it difficult to split the bill at a restaurant. That’s the problem. Bill-splitting app Tab provides an app that scans your receipt and works out who owes what. That’s the solution. While the approach seems to work, an increasing number of academics and designers argue that it’s overly limiting and restrictive.

Consider human prosthetics, says Marc Hassenzahl, Professor of User Experience and Ergonomics at the Folkwang University, and Pieter Desmet, Professor of Design for Experience at the Delft University of Technology. In the early days of prosthetics, designers framed limb loss as a problem. The solution was to create an artificial limb that mimicked a biological leg or arm. But this perspective limited designers. They could only create something as good as a biological limb.

“Letting go of this problem-focused approach, however, enabled [orthopedic manufacturer] Össur to develop revolutionary carbon fiber limbs, Cheetah Flex-Foot, which do not imitate human legs and have been made famous by international athletes,” wrote the academics. “Instead of understanding the absence of legs as primarily a problem to be solved, the designers used a seemingly problematic situation as a possibility to explore material and technology to create a new type of leg.” The pair argue that design ought to shift to a possibility-driven framework. 

Instead of starting with a problem to be fixed, designers search for potential experiences to create. While there are limitless possibilities, Hassenzahl and Desmet suggest that happiness can help narrow our focus. Happiness is the most common wish among people. So too does it drive personal and professional success. Given these positive consequences, “it seems only natural to make it the major objective for design.”

But what does that look like in practice? Hassenzahl and Desmet advise designers to look for possible hedonic (“creating or mediating positive experiences”) and eudaimonic (“stimulating people’s awareness of their abilities to increase their happiness”) experiences before making a choice. Faced with the challenge of improving a long train journey, designers have suggested adding on-board entertainment systems. This hedonistic improvement contrasts with the eudaimonic alternative: invest billions of dollars to improve the line and accelerate the journey.

Positive design framework

Desmet followed up his first foray into design philosophy with a second framework, one developed with Anna E. Pohlmeyer, then assistant professor in the department of human-centered design at Delft University. Their new approach offered a practical framework for positive design, an umbrella term for all design in which explicit attention is paid to the well-being of users. 

Their framework challenges designers to treat the end user’s subjective well-being (happiness) as the explicit, central objective, rather than a fortunate side effect. Specifically, it asks designs to consider three cornerstones of well-being.

Design for pleasure. Similar to possibility-driven design, positive design encourages designers to create experiences that people enjoy in the moment. Products can both engender positive feelings and reduce negative emotions. Design features can be the source of pleasure (see: Mailchimp’s Freddie) or a facilitator of enjoyment.

Neighboring theories and frameworks seek to exhaustively list what counts as a pleasurable experience. Cognitive ergonomics expert Patrick Jordan suggested four distinct types of pleasure: physical, social, psychological, and ideological. In a separate paper, Desmet explored 25 distinct positive emotions, ranging from sympathy and admiration to lust and relaxation.

Design for personal significance. Positive design takes a more nuanced look at eudaimonic value, acknowledging that people are different. What creates eudaimonic happiness for one person may demoralize another. Personal significance comes from identifying an individual’s goals and helping them move toward them.

Consider how high-performing apps in the Center for Humane Technology’s study encourage users to set their own objectives. For example, MyFitnessPal doesn’t push people toward some abstract notion of fitness. Instead, it asks what’s important to you and defines your goals around that.

“Much of our own internal, customer-facing teams are built with hospitality in mind,” explains Notion’s Emma Auscher. “We make sure that every Notion experience is unique and delightful, and that everyone feels at home with Notion.”

Design for virtue. Here, Desmet and Pohlmeyer’s framework diverges from the well-trodden path of hedonic and eudaimonic components. “‘Am I behaving honorably?’ ask the researchers. “The very question implies a normative distinction between what is good and what is bad that is independent of what we might enjoy or strive for.”

The pair believe that moral virtue is inextricably tied to happiness. Products ought to promote actions—learning, charity, exercise, socializing, and so on—that users perceive as virtuous. Sometimes, these interventions can be minor. For example, user interface hierarchies can offer more weight to certain options. Grocery retailers could use this observation to promote healthy foods while concealing unhealthy options.

Nudge theory represents a more forceful design technique. Typically, most people default to doing what they have always done. It’s called the status quo bias. Nudge theory suggests flipping the default to the virtuous choice. For example, instead of requiring a user to choose a fitness plan while signing up on an exercise app, enroll them during signup (say, to a free/trial plan) and require an action on their part to opt out.

A new era of happiness-focused technology

For most of the 2000s and 2010s, attention dominated product design. Session length, stickiness ratio, and active user metrics reigned supreme as designers focused, not on creating happy users, but addicted ones.

Today, product designers are pushing back. Activists like Tristan Harris railed against the exploitative techniques—often cribbed from the gambling industry—deployed to keep users glued to their devices. More and more designers have moved away from attention-focused design approaches and toward alternatives built around happiness.

Possibility-driven design represents a new way to look at challenges and opportunities. Positive design presents a framework to narrow our attention and focus on the things that matter. Armed with these tools, product designers can usher in a new era of products that leave users feeling refreshed, energized, and happy.

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