Designing for Happiness

While it’s never easy to spend a summer evening in a windowless, air-conditioned room, the lecture series that the Computer Human Interaction Forum of Oregon (CHIFOO) organizes is well worth it. One recent speaker was Pamela Pavliscak, researcher and founder of Change Sciences. Pavliscak is developing a process for understanding what makes users of technology happy.

Her research ties together ethnography, data science and behavioral psychology. Through an online study of 10,000 people at 300 sites, a social listening study of 50 concepts and brands, 500 interviews, and 1000 user diaries, Pavliscak came to an understanding of how to design for happiness, and also avoid building suffering into our designs.

“Technology has always been a happiness project” – Pamela Pavliscak

Why design for happiness?

Some of the language we use to describe our experience with technology treats it like a disease. Do our “users” want to be addicted to the experience we create, or do we need them to be addicted to feed our click rates? Pavliscak argues that, if the goal of design is to improve lives of the people who interact with our work, designers need to pay attention to their values, not just their problems.

Beyond the moral imperative Pavliscak lays out, she also found that users who reported happy experiences spent more time exploring sites, were more likely to return, trusted the experience more and discussed it more on social media. Users who were happier with an experience reported not only happy emotions, but more emotions in general — a richer overall experience.

How do we build happiness into our technology?

Pavliscak describes “delight,” the heuristic user experience designers sometimes employ to satisfy the top level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as an afterthought to the design process: “sassy, illustrated, and designed with designers in mind.”

“Not everyone likes a sassy illustrated character to deliver their grown-up news to them.” – Pamela Pavliscak

By contrast, designing for happiness brings human values into the entire process. Pavliscak identified common themes reported by her happiest subjects. Namely, our experience with technology is at its best when it gives us a sense of autonomy, connects us to others in authentic ways and creates possibilities for growth.

When it’s at its worst, our technology distorts our sense of reality. It can make us feel like we’re always behind, constantly distracted and, though surrounded by others, constantly comparing ourselves to them – disconnected.

How do we bring out the best in our technology?

As problem solvers, our solution must be easy to use. It doesn’t have to be simple, but its functions should be discoverable and its interactions supportive of that basic functionality. If we create more problems than we solve, we make people miserable.

“Easy to use is the baseline. There’s no happiness without that.” – Pamela Pavliscak

But designing for happiness means determining the core values of our users, and introducing those into the process throughout. Pavliscak recommends building happiness into the metrics, workflows, and personas.

1. Develop metrics that reflect human values

Values that you might want to track depend on who is using your product, but, pulling from the themes Pavliscak identified, developing goals based on whether your product gives users a sense of autonomy, connects them with others or creates possibilities for growth is a great start.

2. Design for sustainable engagement

Rewarding users for clicks trains them to respond to stimuli, and can help guide them through tasks quickly. But giving them a sense of growth through the experience each time will make return visits more rewarding.

3. Design for humans before users

Approaching design from a goal-oriented perspective means we want to move the user from problem to solution with minimal friction.

But we risk treating those using our software as patients with diseases we’re trying to cure when we think of them only as a bucket of goals and tasks. If we focus solely on problems, then we’re not necessarily presenting solutions that fulfill their values.

One way to avoid this is to build values into your personas. Not just what our user does, thinks, says, feels, senses and wants, but also their aspirations, hopes, cares, values, memories and what they appreciate.

While Pavliscak’s suggestion of the term “humans becoming” to replace “users” still felt a little buzzword-y  to me, I agree with the basic principle behind it; our experiences should grow with, and for, the people using them.

Beyond happiness

Our design processes are growing as we use data to understand human behavior, and more deeply integrate technology into our identities. Pavliscak concluded by placing the process she had outlined among other value-driven design techniques that were influenced by behavioral science: Slow Design, Positive Design, persuasive design, frictionless design, among others.

Following that continuum, we seem to be evolving from delight, to happiness, to something more profound, a design process that will not only fully integrate human values, but also give us tools to objectively explore those values.


Peter Russo is a UX designer and team lead. He started out studying printmaking, moved to freelance web design, and is currently researching the role of cognitive science in design and the process of building digital projects. Peter volunteers on the AIGA Portland Communications Content Team.

Cover Illustration by Chelsea Cartabiano

Copyedit by David Baggs

By Peter Russo
Published November 13, 2016