Favorites, Guest Post, Inspiration, Product/Interface Design, psychology

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.

Overall, do you think technologies are making us more or less happy?

I think that everyone who works in technology is a bit of an optimist. We believe we are going to make lives better and happier. Technology can make people happier but it has the potential to do much more than it is right now.

We aren’t explicitly designing with the goal of creating positive emotions or making people feel better about themselves. Once companies begin working toward this goal, then we’ll see technology become more positive than it has been.

From my personal experience, businesses decisions are still driven by numbers and it’s hard for people to understand how to measure user happiness.

A lot of things are difficult to measure, but we still try to measure to understand it. When it comes to happiness, there has been a lot of thinking about that. There is the Global Happiness Index, which was developed by Bhutan. Now other countries have followed. That’s one way, for instance, researchers noticed that countries like the United States and Canada are getting wealthier but people are not getting happier. At this point, there are over 1,400 different types of survey instruments to measure happiness.

Some people may be familiar with the “We Feel Fine”, which is an artistic project that gathers up Tweets about how people feel. Since then, there has been more research projects taking geo-tagged Tweets to assess positive emotions.

There are biometrics, too, which are becoming more accessible. People using quantified-self apps may one day help us better understand emotion and design.

To some, measuring happiness sounds like a pop-psychology, when in reality is it so much more. When people feel happier, they are more likely to recommend, return or take action on the site. Happiness is directly connected to the bottom-line and, therefore, should be treated more seriously.

Do you have any suggestions of where people can begin tracking user happiness?

Yes, there are two really simple starting points.

  1. The social media sentiment analysis tools, many of which are free, let you explore your sentiment score and look at the nature of social media posts to find out whether the feeling around a site or brand is positive or negative and why.
  2. If you have an already existing product that is on the market, it is simple to embed a question into the experience asking, “How do you feel about this experience? ” or “How do you feel right now?”

I’ve learned that it’s very hard to tease out all the different emotions associated with happiness and part of the reason is because people aren’t sensitized to that. They’re not considering, “Am I feeling validated?” or “Am I feeling engaged?” or “Am I feeling creative?” We don’t think that way, so keeping it broad is actually good. It’s kind of a barometer. It’s not the only measure you should do, but gives you read on the experience. Are people feeling good about themselves and the experience or are they not?

A lot of companies use the Net Promoter Score as a metric for tracking user happiness. How do you feel about the net promoter score to track happiness?

Many use the Net Promoter Score because it is a standard, which can be great when comparing your company to others. The thinking is that if people will recommend, they must be happy. Adding a “why” question can be even more helpful. We have done this in our studies, and this showed that there are many different reasons why people will and will not recommend something.

Recommending doesn’t necessarily tie to feeling happy after an experience though. You can feel happy, but still not feel comfortable recommending. Plus, questions about emotions or happiness are of a different nature. People know how they feel. There will still be some variation since some people are just happier than others, or some may be high raters. In the end, people are answering just for themselves though and that’s easier. With a recommendation question, there is always a “but” missing.

From "The Science of Happy Design"

From “The Science of Happy Design” by Pamela Pavliscak

So I’d love to talk to you a little bit about your company, Change Sciences. What do you do for companies and how do you best define and measure the idea of user happiness?

We’re researchers, and we take a couple different approaches. We look at combining inputs from different data sources to understand the positive emotions associated with an experience or a brand. It’s a mix of interviews and diaries and social media studies.

We also help organizations design toward happiness. One thing we do is look at the peak moments in an experience. How do you understand those moments and then amplify and extend them so people come away with a happy memory?

When designing new online experiences, we tend to focus so much on one place, on making everything perfectly seamless and removing all friction for the user. But, I think it is interesting how some people will continue using an application that has a terrible user experience. Maybe those people are more patient or forgiving but I think there’s got to be more to it.

To some degree familiarity is a positive. In our online research, we have noticed that Amazon, Zappos and Expedia rated highly for happiness, even though the sites are maybe not the most beautiful. Familiarity brings a certain amount of pleasure. It gives people that feeling, “Yeah, I can totally do this.” The irony of the familiar is that we get sick of things that we love and we crave new experiences.

There is always room for innovation, new design ideas and new experiences. Nevertheless, it is a tricky balance to work between the two worlds of the familiar design, that makes people feel smart and in control, and the new experiences that are more exciting, yet maybe a bit unsettling.

Do you have a favorite example of what you consider happy design or you know site or experience or applications that just you personally find to be like the epitome of happy design?

A few come to mind. The TED app does make me happy, but I can also take it apart and say “Oh, wow! It has a lot of positive design elements.”

ModCloth is another good example. I do have something of a dress habit, so I probably spend a little too much time there actually. For me, a positive design shows the presence of other people in an authentic way. ModCloth, in its product reviews, lets me see real people wearing the clothes and putting them together in new ways. It brings that element of humanity, and also acceptance, and that’s a very positive thing.

Learn more about Pamela Pavliscak by following her on Twitter or her website.


Filed under: Favorites, Guest Post, Inspiration, Product/Interface Design, psychology


Drew Lepp is a UX/UI designer and founder of TimeKat, who aims to create online experiences that help make people happier and more productive. She lives in Washington, DC and enjoys inventing terrible dance moves, never cooking and taking videos of her forever kitten, Tiny Taco.