Child playing in the yard.

We chase after pleasure. We try to achieve it and it motivates us to invest our effort, resources and emotions. Naturally, we are interested in making things that will support our positive feelings and help us flourish. But can it be achieved by design?

Welcome to Positive design

The idea of designing human happiness is the focus of positive design — the genre that explores how to create positive experiences that last over time.

One of the thinkers at the forefront of positive design is Anna Pohlmeyer — co-chair of Delft Institute of Positive Design, part of ID StudioLab at TU Delft. She studies which elements can trigger and prolong positive experiences and puts theory into practice. Part of her work is creating products and services based on the thorough research and experiments aimed at influencing human happiness and positive affect.

Of course, designing cool products is not the goal itself and research shows what truly matters to human happiness are the experiences. However, well-designed products and services might have their fair share as well. They can enable us to experience positive emotions, solve our problems, give us a sense of mastery or be a gate towards expressing our values (take a look at vegan leather Piñatex for the record). And these factors, in turn, can help achieve happiness.

The path to entry…

The positive design approach doesn’t give you one-size-fits-all process for your creations. However, there is a framework which can help you navigate your design process. It embraces 3 elements: enabling people to feel pleasure (experience a positive affect), addressing the need for personal significance (by pursuing personal goals and enabling self-actualization) and being compatible with one’s values (enabling, or not preventing one from being a morally good person).

If you want to design things that promote human flourishing you need to include all of those components — if one ingredient is missing, your quest will not be fulfilled. In plain words it’s about helping your users feel joy, reach their goals and make moral and coherent decisions. Take smoothies brand Innocent for instance — it tastes great, gives your body healthy boost and on top of that — shares their income with charity.

So how to do it? Be aware of 5 principles inspired from psychology:

  1. Designed things should be easy to use, giving us a sense of control, productivity and mastery, thereby fulfilling our need for autonomy.
  2. People want to be able to trust, so make things that are truly secure, authentic and respectful.
  3. For most people, positive feelings get their true value only when they are shared with others. Enable connection and create sense of community and belonging by your creations.
  4. People also want to be actors rather than observers. They want to discover, play and create things on their own, so giving them possibilities for natural expression and exploration is a great gift.
  5. The last but not least — we want to learn, feel meaningful and be a part of something bigger. Think how you can fulfill this need and give people sense of flow and personal progress.

…and practical tips

The tricky thing about the positive feelings is that they are very subjective and shifting. People adapt to changes easily, positive changes included. So, if you don’t want to leave your users feeling blunt after a shower of happy-go-lucky interventions, you need to add some variety and surprise. Anna Pohlmeyer experiments with designing products that purposely “break” approximately 1 out of 10 times they’re being used. Thanks to that, after the initial astonishment and a bit of frustration, the users become more aware and grateful during the rest 9/10 times when the device is working properly.

Remember also, that so as to induce positive affect — anticipation can be even more powerful than the experience! So think purposedly how to design moments of waiting and anticipating things to happen. It will fire up the excitement and prolong the positive feelings beyond the sole moment of using the product or service.

And the last but not least – being in the moment is a one thing, memorising it is another one. Check how users remember your products / services and design also the way they will remember it. Support them with the artifacts triggering the most important emotions, shape how and when they will think about it. Thanks to that you will help them recall the experience and prolong the positive feelings they got.

So next time you are designing anything in your organization, you can ask yourself these questions:

  1. What will this thing give your users in the long term?
  2. What is its purpose? Does it help them achieve their own goals, express themselves, connect to others, or to live by their values more consistently?
  3. What will people’s experience be like during the stages of anticipation, usage, and reflection? How can you make it more sustainable and stronger even after some time?

Explore those elements, investigate the answers and once you know — go and make people happy!