Happiness Through Experience: A Discussion with Pamela Pavliscak
The proliferation of technology and its impact on our lives is hard to ignore. We surround ourselves with an ever growing array of devices designed to improve and enhance our daily lives. We spend our time looking for software designed to make us work more efficiently, hunting for apps allowing us to communicate more effectively, and looking toward a future of interconnected devices talking to each other for the benefit of the global good. We are sold on the promise of technology and its ability to bring us happiness through a world of efficiency and positive experiences. But does it? Is technology capable of making us happy? Can a screen-based experience bring us real happiness, and how so?
Whether technology can truly make people happy has been at the epicenter of a long series of articles and research over the past several years. The data seems to point in both directions, with some saying technology creates disconnected individuals who are largely withdrawn and isolated, while others point to the ability technology has to draw people out and bring them together through positive online experiences. What we do know, however, is that technology use is on the rise and that the user experience plays a key role in this question of happiness.
Pamela Pavliscak founded her user experience research and strategy firm, Change Sciences, in order to answer many of these specific questions. Her research over the past two decades has explored technology and the role it plays in the happiness of individuals. She conducts dozens of UX sessions per month and has worked on over 700 projects exploring and defining the role of user experience.
In our own ongoing exploration of happiness in technology, we approached Pamela to ask her about her research, where happiness and technology intersect, and what a good experience means to the user.
We’ve spent a lot of time exploring the idea of happiness and what it means to be happy. In your opinion, where do happiness and technology intersect?
Our view of happiness is becoming more nuanced every day. From positive psychology, we know that happiness is about pleasure and purpose. From behavioral economics, we know that experiences make us happier than things, but we are lousy at predicting what will really make us happy. Architects and city planners know that a designed environment has a big impact on happiness.
Yet, we don’t know very much about how technology itself impacts our happiness. We are using technology to assess our happiness, with the rise of quantified self apps of various kinds. From global happiness surveys, we also know that access to technology—where there was none before—can increase a sense of well-being. In the design community, we suspect that aesthetics have an impact.
We should think about delightful moments on a continuum. A happy experience has a before and an after, anticipation and remembering, and that can be what brings people joy.
People instinctively know the right answer to this question though. When you ask people whether technology makes them happy, they don’t focus on the thing itself but on the activities it enables, the emotions it evokes, the people it connects. Technology, and really what technology does for us, is a big part of happiness.
There have been many articles questioning whether technology can even make us happy. From your research, what have you found regarding the impact of technology on happiness?
We hear a lot about how technology is damaging our health, disconnecting us from living in the moment, and fragmenting our thinking. The best way to be happy with technology seems to be to limit it or even detox. Of course, that’s not a realistic goal for most of us. Technology is deeply embedded in our everyday lives, and that’s not going away. In fact, it will be more complicated. Right now our experience of technology is pretty screen-centric. Once we layer in everyday objects, prosthetics, and robots, it’s going to become even more difficult to get away from it all. And many of us won’t want to.
So, I’m interested in how we can be happier with technology. It turns out that people feel creative, challenged, and connected because of technology not in spite of it. My research centers on what that really means and how we can design toward happiness.
Like the research around happiness in the workplace, my research suggests that happiness is the bottom line. When people feel happier before, during, and after an experience, it is more likely that there will be positive outcomes for everyone. People feel better about themselves, and at the same time, engage more with the brand that made them feel that way.
Incorporating moments of surprise and delight can enhance a person’s experience when using an app or device. What do you feel are other important traits of a good online experience?
The moments that we obsess over—the cheeky error message, the clever animation, the delightful detail—are often missed entirely. This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t pay attention to details, but it may mean that what we think makes people happy is not the same as what actually makes people happy. People take away a feeling mostly about themselves, and the best sites attune every detail to making people feel smart or connected or creative.
Our focus on delightful surprises speaks to an overall business focus on the interacting self. Delightful details can help people to savor an experience, to slow it down. But we also need to think about ways to factor in moments that may trigger a memory or become part of a story. We should think about delightful moments on a continuum. A happy experience has a before and an after, anticipation and remembering, and that can be what brings people joy.
People’s online needs are varied and complex, making them, at times, difficult to please. How can user experience address the needs of a diverse audience?
One way to address the needs of a diverse audience is to start thinking about the emotions you want to evoke. Happiness, yes, but happiness is made up of lots of different types of positive emotions. In my research, 25 positive emotions came up most frequently. These emotions roughly break out to five core concepts—autonomy, trust, creativity, connection, meaning. It’s not all, or even mostly, about pleasure as it turns out.
The way to design for happiness is to identify the positive emotions most often associated with the experience—the emotional blueprint. Then, look to models of behavioral and emotional design to evoke those emotions. Finally, measure the experience to understand and develop that positive bond.
From a user experience standpoint, painfully bad experiences or even small moments of difficulty can have a direct impact on our feeling of well-being and accomplishment. Given the number of variables involved in designing for people, do you think that online happiness is too high of a bar for us to achieve?
From the memory experiments I conducted—where people drew their favorite experiences and their worst—it’s clear that people don’t sweat the small stuff when it comes to experiences that leave them with a positive feeling. They remember where they begin, and what they typically do. Endpoints are not as memorable, perhaps because people move from one site or app to the next without much thought. This runs counter to the peak-end rule, but then again we aren’t talking about intensely negative and highly physical experiences like colonoscopies. Well, hopefully not.
The way to design for happiness is to identify the positive emotions most often associated with the experience—the emotional blueprint. Then, look to models of behavioral and emotional design to evoke those emotions.
There are patterns when it comes to the negative experiences people remember. Experiences that feel broken, disrespectful, or deceptive fare the worst. Luckily, those are obstacles that are pretty easy to overcome. For customers that do go away unhappy, displacing negative moments with positive stories is a better strategy than encouraging customers is to re-live their bad experiences on social media or a customer service call.
As a result of your extensive research on people and their motivations when using technology, how has your approach to the practice of user experience changed over the years?
My practice used to be centered on finding friction points and ways to eliminate or minimize them. Now it’s flipped. I spend most of my time identifying the positives and figuring out ways to extend, reinforce, or amplify them. I still find that observational research and in-depth, often indirect, interviews are the best way to tease out and understand those peak moments. More and more, I rely on other sources of data to understand customers, especially social media listening as the bridge between analytics and interviews and online diaries to sample highs and lows.
Are there simple things that designers and UX practitioners can do to improve audience happiness?
Everybody loves happiness. But it’s more than puppy dogs and ice cream, or maybe in our case, more than cute mascots and clever copy. It’s a big concept. It’s small pleasures and higher purpose. If only there was a secret formula! There is one simple thing to try, though. Frame the experience as one person to another. First a conversation, and later a relationship. No matter how finely we tune our empathy, it’s still very difficult to think about individuals rather than segments, groups, or personas. The aggregate and the abstract are quite possibly the enemies of happiness.
Maybe one more thing. Focus on documenting and understanding the positive moments people have. Like a gratitude journal in post-its. You may be surprised at what surfaces.
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Pamela Pavliscak is co-founder of Change Sciences, a user experience research and strategy firm in New York. Pamela will be speaking at WebVisions Chicago in September. Her talk, The Science of Happy Design, will look at happiness online and the implications for the user experience.