Over the last couple of years, I’ve conducted research with my colleagues at Change Sciences—an online study with 8,000 people on 250 top sites, online diaries sampling positive tech moments from 1350 people, and memory experiments with 535 people representing a range of ages and socio-economic backgrounds—to determine whether it’s possible to create happiness by design.
In short: yes, it is.
Designers love to talk about delight, but delight’s only 1 part of the formula to make happiness. Small details, like a clever status message or an image that changes as you make selections, may get overlooked or just not have that much impact.
Designing happiness is a balance of small pleasures and a higher purpose. Apple has this formula nailed down—every aspect of their products get attention, even the packaging. Airbnb does it well, too, with their focus on every aspect of search, including a discreet bar graph showing listings in a price range.
“Designing happiness is a balance of small pleasures and a higher purpose.”
Let’s take a look at 3 ways to create happy moments with design.
1. Show real people
A big source of happiness in any experience—banking, social media, travel—is human interaction. If we’re working at a company, we might think of likes, reviews, and testimonials as human interaction. But those things aren’t enough to create authentic happiness.
“An authentic, funny, or even flawed voice creates a small moment of recognition and pleasure.”
Just showing the presence of other, real human beings is compelling. The photo reviews on Modcloth are a powerful example of authentic—and inclusive—human presence. Real people, quirks and all, make the reviews more compelling. It’s less about a product, and more like a story waiting to be told.
Some of this is tone. As one of our wise study participants put it: “Most sites feel like they’re talking to themselves about themselves.”
Rather than an amorphous corporate entity or a bombastic marketer, people want to see a real person. An authentic, funny, or even flawed voice creates a small moment of recognition and pleasure. Slack is filled with moments like this, where the tone evokes a clever person you want on your team.
People crave moments of authentic connection, whether it’s formalized networks of friends or quick glimpses of real people. The new ways in which technology enables that little spark of humanity is a big part of its positive impact.
2. Be considerate without being creepy
“Many of the happiest moments we have are when technology seems to know us.”
Many of the happiest moments we have are when technology seems to know us. A well-timed suggestion, a quick save, or a just-in-time service makes people feel cared for. The tricky part is balancing it against getting a little too personal.
A good example is personal assistant app Google Now giving a heads up about traffic ahead or a reminder about where the car is parked. To our participants, it seemed more like “an extension of my brain, remembering the details that I might forget.”
Instead of using personal data purely for marketing, positive design uses data to make people feel smart.
“Happy design isn’t so much about personalization as it is about consideration.”
When Amazon lets you know that you’ve already purchased an item or the Starbucks app lets you know that there’s a shop nearby, it feels helpful but respectful. Happy design isn’t so much about personalization as it is about consideration.
3. Leave it open
In some ways, a happy experience is an incomplete one. Hundreds of people counted the moment they saw Humans of New York (HONY) in their Facebook feed as one of their happiest each day. One person in our diary study aptly noted, “HONY is a huge inspiration to me. It’s just a hint of a story, so I keep thinking about it.”
Real people, compelling story, and no ending.
It’s more than a choose-your-own-ending effect, though. It’s about creativity.
Creativity is one of the important positive emotions people associated with their favorite sites, apps, or devices. Sometimes this just means being able to play without consequences. Some examples:
- A mortgage site that lets you experiment with a home-buying calculator without a credit hit
- A health site that shows you popular searches for conditions to give you a window into common health concerns without sacrificing privacy
- Music apps like Shazam or Pandora that foster discovery
The most positive experiences in our study leveled up to a maker moment—photos, playlists, videos. Yet, any experience that leaves room for a little creativity can build up positive emotion.
“When people feel happy, they take positive action. They make a purchase, they make a recommendation, they return.”
When people feel happy, they take positive action. They make a purchase, they make a recommendation, they return. Small design details can add up to big happiness.
And when it comes to technology, what makes people happy is feeling connected, smart, and creative.
Pamela is founder of Change Sciences, a UX research and strategy firm for Fortune 500s, startups, and other smart companies.