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Can We Design Happiness?

You’ve seen the headlines: Facebook is making us lonely (The Atlantic); How Facebook makes us unhappy (The New Yorker); The social and emotional costs of technology use, and on and on. Apparently, our increasing use of technology is making us depressed, lonely, and unable to read social cues; it’s making us dumber, destroying our memory capacity, and wreaking havoc on our attention spans.

But is this the whole story? There’s increasing evidence that thoughtful product design can actually make us happier. Happier not just in terms of the positive emotions we experience after eating a delicious meal or petting a puppy, but also in terms of our overall satisfaction with our lives, our decisions, and possibly most importantly, our connections with others in the world.

My own search to understand how technology affects happiness started a few years ago after an especially exhausting series of projects. My creative tank was running on empty after taking on projects that demanded every ounce of my mental energy. During this period, I also developed chronic insomnia and spent the better part of two years in zombie-mode during the day and at night hoping that a new combination of sleeping pills or relaxation techniques would finally help shut my brain off for a bit. Nothing ever worked.

Instead of spending my downtime with my friends brainstorming hilarious sitcom premises we would one day write, biking down to the Jefferson Memorial—an afternoon ritual which both energized me and allowed me to clear my mind—or working on personal graphic design projects, I found myself almost subconsciously logging onto social media sites and subsequently getting frustrated and irrationally angry when seeing others who had the energy to pursue some of the best things life has to offer. The truth is, I desperately wanted to switch places with the people in those photos. Rationally, I knew these posts were highly curated life highlights but, you know, the mind is complex thing.

After talking to other designers, entrepreneurs and developers, I learned my story was much more common than I ever expected. s technology really making us unhappy?

Numerous studies have indicated that people who are considered “heavy information and communication technology (ICT) users” report more mental health issues (especially stress and anxiety), poorer quality of sleep, and higher stress levels than control groups who use technology significantly less frequently. According to David Volpi, the best explanation for these data is that the use of technology causes these problems. This makes sense since people who use more technology report more emotional and mental health problems —right?

Wrong, actually—or, at least, there isn’t enough information to draw this conclusion. After all, correlation does not imply causation. The fact that high technology use and high reports of depression occur in the same people does not mean that high technology use causes depression.

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Q&A: Getting Started as a UX Freelancer

This is the first time I’ve attempted something like this. Let’s see how this goes.

Suddenly, I’ve been receiving at least one email a day from someone looking to get started as a UX freelancer. First off, that’s awesome! I fully support your decision to rock on and take the world by storm. But, fair warning, it’s a lot of work. It’s won’t always be easy, fun and filled with glitter bombs and funfetti cake but depending on what motivates you, it may be the perfect decision for you and your career.

Since people have been asking me these questions on a semi-regular basis I figured I might as well write some of my rambling thoughts down. Here are a few of the nuggets.

Note:  I am by no means an expert in anything (aside from possibly structured procrastination or giving the illusion of having a clean apartment by shoving everything into a closet, drawer or underneath any piece of furniture). So please proceed with caution. 

How did you get started freelancing?

I have a history of making huge life decisions impulsively with virtually no planning. My venture into self employement was no different.

Flashback to the year 2010. I had an awesome job working at a catering company planning some incredible events (the opening of the Butterfly Exhibit at the Museum of Natural History and a fundraiser featuring historically accurate menu items at Arlington National Cemetery stand out as highlights). I loved a lot about the job particularly the gourmet lunches (beef tenderloin with silton cheese and scallops were the norm) but the best part were my coworkers who over 3.5 years felt more like family than colleagues. But, the truth was, I wasn’t all that great at the job. I love parties and think eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures, but I didn’t have that “je ne sais quoi” to either spectacularly manage events or create innovative menu items. So, being somewhat smart and semi-motivated, I had to start thinking about my next step. I toyed with planning events at a company in-house or focusing on marketing elsewhere but I wasn’t thrilled with either option as a long term career.

Then came design.

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freelance productive

5 (Almost) Free Tools to Help Distracted Freelancers

To say I am easily distracted is an understatement; I have the attention span of a child at Disneyland. I used to blame my distraction problems at work on general office issues like people talking, people laughing, people getting up to get water. Literally everything seems so much more interesting than my computer screen, someone printing out copies, reheating leftovers or walking to the bathroom. Why focus on work when life is happening all around me!?

But now I freelance, most often away from a client site. I’ve tried beautiful coworking spaces with abundantly flowing pour over coffee and motivational handlettered art on the walls. I’ve tried coffee shops filled with interesting looking people that I am fascinated with trying to figure out what type of job they have where they can sit at Starbucks looking for hours on end. But nothing was quite as fantastic as rolling out of bed and setting up shop at my desk. With no need to get dressed, put on makeup, or even brush my hair, I feel like I am truly living the dream.

Although this might not work for everyone, it works well for me. But, since I don’t have office distractions to blame anymore, I’ve substituted external distractions for internal ones. It’s a constant struggle to focus on project work when I have emails to respond to, meetings to schedule, Twitter to check, Wikipedia is calling my name or my cat is being super cute laying on my laptop in a little ball.

Somehow, through much trial and error, I’ve found a system that works for me and allows me to focus when I really need to. These tools might not work for everyone but they’ve helped me tremendously I highly recommend anyone struggling with distraction problem to give them a try.

What has helped a distracted mind like mine find focus:

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5 Tax Tips for Creative Freelancers

Dear Readers,

I am taking a bit of a departure from my normal design-related posts to talk about something we all have to do at some point or another: taxes.

There are some things that never get easier with time. For me, those items include cleaning out the fridge, push ups and doing my taxes.

I have been a very happily self-employed freelancer in a creative field on and off for the past 5 years. But, even prior to my self-employment days, I always managed to have a part-time job or two, assorted freelance gigs or would switch jobs halfway through the year to complicate tax matters a bit. I’ve also had my share of painful and expensive tax mistakes in the past simply because there were many things I didn’t understand.

Luckily, now I have someone who shares my DNA to help turn my messy stack of papers and uncategorized expenses into a professional set of documents that would make the IRS proud. My accountant (and sister), Alya Lepp, wrote a quick guide based on some questions she is asked by self-employed people (including myself) every year.

For all you freelancers, I hope this advice helps avoid some of the past mistakes I’ve made.

— Drew


5 Tax Tips for Creative Freelancers


I am contracting with a company and they asked me to fill out a w9. Does that mean they are taking taxes out?

A W9 form is required by the company you contract for because they need to report your wages to the IRS. Once your complete your contract, they will send you a copy of a 1099-MISC and send the same information to the IRS, so that the IRS will be aware that they should be seeing that money reflected on your tax return.


I’m always confused about what kind of business expenses I can write off. Can I write off lunch? What about my internet when I work from home? What about software like Photoshop or my computer?
You can write off all kinds of fun things! Without knowing your precise industry, I can’t give you super specific examples, but basic categories would include meals and entertainment (this does NOT include lunch you buy for yourself while you’re working), continuing education (we’ll talk more about that later), travel/car expenses/parking, professional subscriptions, software and applications, phone & internet, client gifts, etc. If you can justify it as a business expense, you can basically take anything. However, don’t get greedy: I’ve had clients try to write off business outfits, haircuts, and puppies – those are not allowed. If you’re unsure, do a quick Google search!

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ux design for happy users

How to Design for Happy Users

Happiness seems made to be shared.

Pierre Corneille

At a high level, happiness is defined as overall life satisfaction.  What makes people the happiest is hard to quantify. Some items I assume would be ingredients to happiness (a high income, warm, sunny weather, access to great food) don’t even make a blip on the happiness radar map. In fact, according to the World Happiest report, the happiest people on earth come from some of the coldest and dreariest places on earth.

Although it is true that happiness means many different things to different people, scientists have found patterns and similarities between people all across the world.

A few things that make people happy:

  • Being around family and friends
  • Meaningful work
  • Positive thinking
  • Connecting with other people
  • Being productive
  • Processes going smoothly
  • Being healthy
  • Feeling appreciated
  • Giving to others
  • Freedom to make life choices
A selection of Instagram posts tagged #happiness

A selection of Instagram posts tagged #happiness.

Although many of these concepts may feel disconnected from what product and UX designers can control, the truth is that we as designers can definitely have an impact on many of these areas. Even if the impact is small, it adds up to something meaningful.

However, if you remember one thing from this post above all else, remember this: your job isn’t to increase user happiness, it’s to increase your users’ happiness.

I’ll discuss some helpful techniques and strategies — from ways to better understand your users in order to cater to them specifically. This means making your users feel that you really care about them—not just as metrics, page views or profit measures, but as individuals. The strategies presented here should build upon theories of happy design presented earlier in order to help you customize and apply those theories to your design and your users.

This means making your users feel that you really care about them—not just as metrics, page views or profit measures, but as individuals.

Although I’m not focusing on how to increase your happiness, science has suggested that giving to others and sharing will almost certainly increase your overall life satisfaction.

So, be selfish, start giving a great experience to your users.

How to make your users happier

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Tips for Building a Trustworthy Application

It’s true, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and we have an interesting biological trick to thank for that.

First impressions and judgments are made at an impressively awesome speed. Within the one-tenth of a second, we are able to decide if someone is trustworthy, competent or attractive. Jonathan Freeman, assistant professor at New York University’s Department of Psychology, said:

“Our findings suggest that the brain automatically responds to a face’s trustworthiness before it is even consciously perceived.”

Current evolutionary psychology notes it would’ve been important to quickly judge another’s intentions, avoiding the dangerous possibility of confusing friend for foe.

Even today, and with additional time and information, these snap-decision judgments are so powerful that they’re extremely difficult to erode. And exactly as we judge people, we judge products, interfaces and companies.

What does this have to do with building a trustworthy app?

Well, it’s important to win the trust of potential users within moments of the initial impression.

But even if you are lucky enough to gain instant trust with a potential user or customer,  it’s even more important to constantly build trust with your user throughout the entire customer experience. Trust can be lost within a moment and once that snap decision is made, its difficult to win back.

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ux designer sarah doody

How Storytelling Can Help User Experience Designers

This week’s guest post comes from Sarah Doody, a designer and product strategist I’ve long admired. For years, Sarah has shared her expertise on design, productivity and communication in such places as UX Magazine and her blog and weekly newsletter, the latter of which are two of my favorite resources for UX and product inspiration (I never know what wide range of wonderful suggestions I’ll be getting each time I open up an email from her). She’s one of the most talented and thoughtful designers out there and it is an honor to share her writing with you. — Drew

There’s a lot of talk about storytelling in these days. But a lot of it is quite cliché. The focus of storytelling in business has become very out of balance.

Most of the ideas about storytelling in business focus on using storytelling to craft a story for your customer – a story that’s marketing focused.

The lost opportunity in business and product development right now lies in using storytelling as a tool throughout the entire product development process – not just after as a marketing tool.

The value of storytelling goes beyond communicating with your customers. Storytelling can be a strategic tool with your teams and stakeholders throughout the entire product development process. Used properly storytelling can help alleviate a common set of symptoms that many teams encounter during the product development process, save significant time and money, and ultimately create a better product.

A few years ago I was working at a startup that had scaled to nearly 75 people. I was tasked with re-designing the header and navigation structure for the site. I think at that point I was also working directly with a product manager, a project manager, a product-marketing manager, the CTO, and the CEO.

It wasn’t actually that complicated of a header and navigation to create. But with that many people involved, it became a multi-week project that included hours of meetings discussing edge cases that I didn’t agree we needed to cover in that iteration. But a lot of the people I was working with were from big companies and were used to dealing with every possible scenario. In other words, the opposite of lean.

I had finished up what I thought was the final versions of the header and the product manager sent it out for review on a Sunday morning. One minor problem though, she provided zero context and simply send an email to the CEO (cc’ing a bunch of people) and said “which do you like better, header A or header B.” When I finally checked my email Sunday evening, I had 69 emails. Yes, 69 emails. I wish I had a screenshot, but it’s true. I still cringe as think about it!

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The Science of Happy Design: An Interview with Pamela Pavliscak

I had the pleasure to talk to researcher and data scientist, Pamela Pavliscak, to talk about how technology affects happiness, understanding how to measure happiness, and, of course, our love of ModCloth.

Her research is part deep dive interviews, part social science experiments, part data science. She founded Change Sciences to help companies like Ally, NBC Universal, Prudential, and Virgin design for the future. She’s logged thousands of hours in the field, trying to better understand how people use technology, and has run hundreds of UX studies on almost every type of site or application you could imagine.

Drew: You recently gave a presentation at SXSW on the “Science of Happy Design”. Can you explain what exactly is “happy design”?

Pamela: A happy design is focused on a positive physical and emotional outcome, unlike designs that are geared toward persuasion or marketing. A happy design should give a greater sense of well-being for individuals and the communities. Happiness seems like a slippery term, but I think that a combination of pleasure and purpose is at the core of it.

When I presented at SXSW it was kind of a wrap up of all the research I had been doing. I was getting a little frustrated with the fact that when you hear about technology in the media, it’s all this negative stuff. It’s about how we don’t pay attention to real life anymore. We’re not in the moment, we’re recording it. We are on all the time, but we’re still lonelier than ever.

I thought to myself, “I can see that.” Yet my research shows technology is also enabling all this positive behavior. People are feeling good about themselves and feeling more connected. So I wanted to explore that. We did several phases of research to try to figure out what happiness means and then how can we design for it.

The Ultimate Marketing Site Launch Checklist to Get Happy Users

You’ve checked your links, tested on different browsers, and settled on the perfect tagline to get your product’s message across…

…But something else to keep in mind when preparing your website for launch is how every element of your site will affect its users happiness.

According to on an intensive study by user researcher, Pamela Pavliscak, a high happiness rating correlates to a high likelihood to return and to recommend.

Happy users feel confident, comfortable, and curious when exploring your website. They interact with the site, and they’re more forgiving on the off chance that, despite all your preparations, something does go wrong.

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your new parallax scrolling landing page looks if users can’t figure out where they’re supposed to go, how to get there, or why they should care about getting there in the first place.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when designing a marketing website to help make your visitors happier and more satisfied and more likely to buy.

Successful marketing website designs are:

  • Trustworthy
  • Authentic
  • Usable
Homepage Content
  • Is your website’s messaging clear? Make sure your web copy is concise, honest, and to-the-point: what, exactly, does your product do, and how does this benefit the user?
  • Is it jargon free? Don’t rely on industry-specific jargon, abbreviations, etc. in your web copy. Just because understand it, doesn’t mean your users will.
  • Do you have a clear call to action? What action do you want your users to take on your page? Can you be more descriptive or provide more value than “Sign Up” or “Learn more”?

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Interview: How Non-Profits can use UX to Create Impact

Here, we are firm believers in how design can be used to create positive experiences, help people flourish and ultimately change the world in some way.

We were fortunate to be able to talk to designer and co-founder of GreatPositive, Matthew Martindale about how design can help non-profits increase their impact.

Talk a bit about GreatPostitive, its initiative, what you are trying to achieve and how did you come up with this idea:

Our mission is to create a global community for people who want to build a better world. By utilizing great UX/visual design, technology, and data—we are building an ecosystem that simplifies giving back by making opportunities more accessible, measurable, etc.


Co-founder, Carol Luong and I enjoy positively impacting the lives of others through the act of giving. And we’re a bit obsessed with ways to build communities that people aren’t just a part of online, but are an extension of who they are offline. So it made perfect sense to align the two and focus our time on work that means something to us. I don’t think we are building our company any more than I think we are simply just living our lives the way we want.

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