Information, Product/Interface Design, User Experience, User Research

How to Design for Happy Users

ux 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

1. Listen to them

One of the biggest, most successful, and easiest ways to design for your users’ happiness isn’t anything super technical and doesn’t require tons of training or sifting through analytic reports: the best thing you can do to improve your users’ happiness is, quite simply, to listen to them. By researching, you can learn a whole wealth of information like who your users are, what will make them more productive, what motivates them, and what they think of your brand or product. 

The best thing you can do to improve your users’ happiness is, quite simply, to listen to them.

In order to do so successfully, there are several strategies you can use—ideally it’s best to use all or several of them in combination for the most breadth and depth of user feedback. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages and the right combination depends on your goals, access to users, budget, and timeline.

How to Listen with Surveys

The easiest option available is to set up surveys to collect user information. Surveys are great for understanding broad information about your users like who they are, what type of music they listen to and where they shop.  In order to get the most out of your user surveys, try to make them as clear and easy as possible.

I’m sure you’ve taken a survey before; if so, I’m willing to bet you didn’t particularly enjoy the experience: surveys take time, the can be poorly designed, force you to answer complicated questions or require answers to questions you don’t have an opinion about. This inherently skews the data and makes the survey results less than reliable.

However, it is possible to write a reliable survey. If you choose to write a survey, you need to be very clear on what you want to know and why a survey is the best way to collect that information.

Determine what you want to know and list your objectives. Do you want to inform the direction of the design, do initial discovery research, get feedback on design decisions?

Tips for designing great surveys:

Define your objective and what you want to learn from the survey (Example: How do people search for new music? What are the top concerns for house hunters? What applications do members of Generation Z use to shop for prom dresses?)

Be clear. Write comprehensible questions with a single concept appropriate for your audience. Group similar questions together and order them logically

Allow for appropriate responses. Use balanced rating scales with equal number of negative and positive options. Use multiple choice and open-ended questions. Include “don’t know” or non-applicable

Take a trial run. Test the survey out with a small group of users to work out any possible issues before taking it to a larger group.

With surveys, be aware of user bias: generally, the only people willing to go through the pain of poorly designed surveys are those who absolutely love your product and those who hate your product with such passion that nothing can sway them. While these users’ answers are invaluable, they don’t make up a representative user sample. You need to find a way to entice the “majority middle” to fill out your survey as well.

User typekit

Use Typekit to create interesting surveys that are more fun to fill out. Be careful to not overdesign and distract from the meaning of what you are trying to say. (It’s always a fine balance.)

Typeform allows you to create surveys that are visually interesting — especially as far as surveys go— and pleasant to complete. In addition, it’s important to incentivize your users to take your survey. Give them a reward for completing it— such as a gift card or a credit for a free month of your product or service. (Be careful what you offer, though: it’s important to get feedback from users who strongly dislike your product/service, and those users might be less incentivized to take the survey if their ‘gift’ is more of something they dislike. For example, Chick-fil-A wants to talk to people who dislike their restaurant, they might want to rethink giving out Chick-fil-A gift cards as a reward.

For example, Chick-fil-A wants to talk to people who dislike their restaurant, they might want to rethink giving out Chick-fil-A gift cards as a reward.

With this in mind, you might want to consider something neutral like an or iTunes gift certificate.) In addition, allow your users to complete the survey anonymously (while still being rewarded) so that they don’t feel guilty and hold back on the criticism.

Ethnio, Survey Monkey and Google Forms are also all great ways to feedback. If you already have an online product, I suggest using a program like and to target the people you want to speak to. For example, users who have logged in at least five times in the last thirty days or users who signed up but never completed their user profile.


Ethno is a great tool for recruiting and screening potential research subjects.

Also, tools like this one developed by Help Scout, can help you get a better sense of what other’s think about your product.

Beware of Bias

Something to be aware of when conducting user research is bias. As humans we are all biased but especially as product designers or product owners, it’s natural to have strong opinions on your product. Therefore, when designing surveys or interviewing users, it’s very easy to unintentionally impose your own ideas about what your users want (or should want): by creating very specific questions; and (in some cases) creating a limited set of answers.

It’s not that you’re doing anything wrong; it’s just impossible to avoid some bias when developing a user survey. The fact of the matter is that, if you are a product owner, developer or designer, you have different thoughts and ideas about your product/service than your users do, and there’s nothing you can do to change that.

No matter how much you user research you perform, if you only hear what you want to hear, or process information that help prove your argument, you’ll never improve your product and you’ll waste a lot of time and energy.

As a survey designer, it is important to remain neutral and avoid any questions that may lead or confuse your respondent to make sure your data is reliable enough to make confidently make product decisions with. 

For more information on the topic: Learn more about Confirmation Bias

How to Listen Through User Interviews

My personal favorite research technique is conducting user interviews. If creating surveys are like dipping your toe in the shallow end, user interviews are like doing a cannonball in the deep end.

I’ve always found user interviews to be the perfect blend of level of effort with a great level of insight. So, instead of surveys (or in addition to), consider talking to your users individually either via a call or in-person. This allows you to set aside your preconceived notions and ask open-ended questions—in general, people are happier to talk about their thoughts in response to an open-ended question in conversation than to write a lengthy answer to an open-ended survey question. I’m always pleasantly surprised how willing people are able to open up –sometimes with sensitive information – during user interviews and then with the high-quality insights they, in turn, provide.

I’m always pleasantly surprised how willing people are able to open up –sometimes with sensitive information – during user interviews and then with the high-quality insights they, in turn, provide.

As with all research, start with a plan.  Outline your goals and what you would like to learn from the conversation and what users you want to talk to. In that case, it’s best to be specific. Then, write a script of carefully crafted questions that will hopefully reveal your desired findings. For example, if you are designing an application that make invoicing easier for creative small business owners, you might want to understand what is difficult, frustrating or annoying with their current process. 

  1. Walk me through how you currently invoice clients.
  2. What were your goals when you started? Are you currently meeting your expectations related to these goals? Why or why not?
  3. What issues are you having with your current process?
  4. Is there anything you wish you didn’t have to do?

As you ask these questions, remember to speak like a person, not a robot. I suggest memorizing the questions so you don’t sound as if you are reading them from your script. Use an approachable tone that lets the person on the other side know you really care about what they have to say.

Use an approachable tone that lets the person on the other side know you really care about what they have to say.

However, if you do pursue this option, make sure that you really do let go of your preconceived notions about what the product should be, what users should want, etc. You have to be willing to listen—truly listen—to what your users are saying, even if they mention things you think are silly, or that you hadn’t thought of before, or that you thought were wonderful and well-designed. 

Also, if someone takes time out of their day to talk to you about your product (or even to talk to you on the phone), be sure to send them a thank-you card and gift. This will help demonstrate that, a) your users’ feedback truly is important, and b) you actually care about your users as people.

Tips for conducting great user interviews:

Start off right.  Since, the goal is to get the best, most honest response from your participants, you need him or her to trust you. Set a friendly and professional tone right from the get-go. From initial scheduling to appointment confirmation to the interview, make sure to let the user know who you are and what you are hoping to learn from the conversation. If a participant is at any point confused about why they are talking to you, or concerned about how you will use their responses, they may clam up and be reluctant to share the juicy details us researchers want to hear.

Record and transcribe your calls. Although you think you have the memory of an elephant and/or take amazing notes, the truth is it’s much too difficult to be listening to a participant, formulating thoughtful follow up questions AND taking notes.  I usually record calls (with the participant’s written consent) using an app called TapeACall Pro and then have the calls transcribed afterward. This way, when I go back to compile results, I know exactly what the participant said without needing to rely on my (sometimes, if not often, incorrect) memory.

Take a trial run with a script of questions. If this is your first (or second) rodeo, there’s no shame in scheduling an early, practice interview. I’ve done research in a few fields well outside my are of expertise. Although, I’d research and write a script of questions I thought were appropriate, once I got into the interview, I’ve found my questions weren’t up to snuff and weren’t eliciting the quality answers I was hoping for. Also, sometimes you’ll find the tone you originally thought would work, isn’t right for the audience. It’s best to find out early in the process and adjust accordingly by adding in questions better suited for the audience.

Aim to do 10 percent (or less) of the talking. Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions and let the user do the rest of the work. Sometimes this is easier than others. If you have trouble getting a participant to open up, start with some softball questions, such as, “walk me through your typical morning”, or “what app do you use most on your phone? How do you use it?” and ask them to describe the answer in detail. This not only sets the stage for the rest of the interview and shows the participant what to expect, it also allows you the opportunity to get to know them better and, if necessary, formulate your next question and approach. If there is a lull in the conversation, stay silent longer than typically would. Allow the participant the chance to fill the silence. 

Send a follow-up card/thank you/gift card. Most of the time, my user research participants are incentivized in some way. Make sure to let your participant know how grateful you are for their time and when they can expect their reward.  


Contextual research involves the researcher going out into the users’ environment to observe and understand how an existing or potential product is influenced by the wider context of users’ lives. It works well in environments like classrooms where the researcher can see outside influences, such as desk arrangement, students, class schedule, general distractions exactly as they are experienced.

How to Listen Through Contextual Research (Watch users in their natural environment)

Although asking people what they want can be helpful, sometimes they don’t really know what they want. That’s why contextual research, also called ethnographic research, site visits, and shadowing are great tools to help you can help figure out what they want by watching people in their natural environment and paying attention to the problems they have, the technologies they use, the people they encounter, the list goes on and on. After all, as Henry Ford said (perhaps apocryphally, but it’s still a good quote!) regarding his invention of the automobile, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse!”

Another great reason to see users in context is to understand and learn from outliers, or as some say, “extreme users”. These are people using a product, at the far end of either spectrum. For example, as IDEO’s Peter Coughlanif once said, if you are doing research for a toothpaste company, you may want to reach out to users with no teeth and users with 7 kinds of toothpaste. These outliers and their environments, ideas and actions are important to understanding the full context to issues that affect them, and possibly more moderate users.  Set up appointments with your users to visit them in their home or office and watch them interact with your product in order to see where the constraints and pain points are, where users aren’t getting the most out of what’s been designed, etc.

For example, as IDEO’s Peter Coughlanif once said, if you are doing research for a toothpaste company, you may want to reach out to users with no teeth and users with 7 kinds of toothpaste.

I’ve seen on-site research work particularly well is in schools.  While researching for an educational technology product, I shadowed middle school teachers for a day. It had been years since I had been in a classroom setting and was particularly shocked by the number of interruptions the teachers dealt with over the course of a few minutes.

Watching one math teacher’s classroom was like watching a carefully orchestrated Broadway musical, intent on giving the illusion of chaos, yet with each actor always ending up at his or her mark. This teacher, perhaps to deal with a combination of high energy and short attention spans, had students use a combination of handheld whiteboards, a fancy electronic blackboard, and pencil and paper all while they jumped up and down from their desks.  

Somehow, as children jumped around, shouted out questions, complained of broken pencils, the teacher marched on and maintained control over the classroom with perfect precision. (If only I could learn to have a small amount of that focus.) I had never seen anything like that math class before. Nothing is more powerful that riding along and seeing the user journey in person.

Tips for conducting great contextual research:

Go in with a game plan.  It’s best to go into contextual research with a “hunt statement” which can be expressed like this: “I am going to research [activity] so that I can [design an application].” Or in other words, “I am going to research how teachers use with computers in a classroom so I can design an application that makes them more productive.” The hunt question helps you focus on the observations that matter and weed out those that don’t.

Record the research (or at least take lots of pictures).  There are many ways to do this. I’ve found a smart phone is more than enough to record some video and audio of interviews. If you decide to take audio and video, be sure to ask permission and let participants how and when the recordings will be used. This can be especially tricky in certain situations. For example, schools probably won’t let you take video or images of student’s faces. In that case, take try to get contextual photos that show the classroom layout, arrangement of desks and location of computers, examples of the work being done and take really great notes.

Summarize your thoughts immediately afterward. How often do you stand up to get something, start walking and one minute later forget what you needed? Our memory cannot be trusted, so it’s tremendously important to keep detailed notes, but also to summarize what was observed right away.  Fortunately for us, created this handy Contextual Highlights worksheet to help summarize research findings.

Designing to make people happier isn’t easy but it’s not impossible. As product designers, most of us aim to make the lives of our users better, but until there is an app that lets you spend more time with your loved ones, we’ll have to work little by little to help find and then design what makes our users happier, even if it’s just a little bit.

Stay in touch on Twitter and Facebook to hear about the release of the next installment in this series when we discuss how to design for happier users by going the extra mile in our designs.

Filed under: Information, Product/Interface Design, User Experience, User Research


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.