Apparently, our increasing use of technology is making us depressed, solitary, and unable to read social cues.
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 in our overall satisfaction, and possibly most importantly, our connections with others in the world.
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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. I developed chronic insomnia and spent the better part of two years in zombie-mode during the day while hoping that a new combination of sleeping pills and relaxation techniques would help shut my brain off at night.
But nothing worked.
Instead of spending my downtime with my friends or working on personal projects, I would subconsciously log onto social media site. After mindlessly scrolling, I’d find myself getting frustrated and irrationally angry when seeing others who had the energy to pursue 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 a complex thing.
After talking to other designers, entrepreneurs and developers, I learned my story was much more common than I ever expected.
But, is 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.
According to Dr. David Volpi, the best explanation 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.
Perhaps it’s the other way around. For example, people suffering from depression tend to use more technology instead of facing other people. Or perhaps there’s a common cause for both the high technology use and the depression.
How technology affects emotions
It’s hard to blame the charges brought against products like Facebook or Slack on poor design.
Emma Seppälä, Associate Director for the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, has found that social connection and compassion are two of the most important aspects of happiness or wellbeing.
In addition to being easy to learn and use, both Facebook and Slack offer excellent ways to connect with friends and colleagues. So what could be the problem here?
According to both Seppälä and Samuel Gosling, the emotional effect social media has on users depends on how you use social media, or your ‘tech-usage style’.
As technology report Adrienne LaFrance said:
“Individual relationships with technology are often more of a reflection of the anxieties and expectations a person brings to the technology—and not the other way around.”
The study indicating that Facebook use causes envy actually shows that ‘the more time people spent browsing the site, as opposed to actively creating content and engaging with it, the more envious they felt.’
By not engaging with the site, users lose both a valuable connection with others, and the rich interaction that design could use to make us happier.
A 2010 study from Carnegie Mellon shows that:
“When people engaged in direct interaction with others—that is, posting on walls, messaging, or ‘liking’ something—their feelings of bonding and general social capital increased, while their sense of loneliness decreased. But when participants simply consumed a lot of content passively, Facebook had the opposite effect, lowering their feelings of connection and increasing their sense of loneliness.”
Seppälä cites the same study:
“When we are actively sharing and posting, then Facebook makes us happier, presumably because we are reaching out to others and, in turn, receiving feedback from them, creating a two-way street of social connection.”
So, yes, the use of technology does affect our emotions. However, technology itself cannot be to blame for any emotional or psychological problems experienced by its users. And this isn’t related to just technology. This general claim is true for just about every activity in our lives from our eating habits, to our exercise routines, to our sleep schedules.
Understanding that your product can have such sweeping effects on your users’ lives, how can we ensure that we’re designing for happiness, and not just adding to the pressure and anxiety of our already busy lives?
Can we design for happiness?
The short answer: Sure thing.
The more truthful answer is: happiness is a complicated topic.
In fact, there is a growing field of psychology that studies ‘human flourishing’ of which happiness is a large part.
When I talk about happiness, it’s not all about fleeting emotions, like the joy felt after hearing great news from a friend, but about getting into ‘the flow’. Essentially, being so focused and satisfied in your decisions that you lose track of time entirely.
Although my ideal goal is to design technology that improves a user’s overall life satisfaction, that is a wildly ambitious and complex undertaking. In fact, if anyone has any ideas on how to do that, I’d love to chat.
But, for most of us, instead of focusing on improving general life satisfaction, it’s more realistic to focus on improving the amount of positive emotions and lessening the negative emotions a user experiences while using your product.
The elements of happy design
“I feel smart”
Happy design is intuitive for its users.
This means you don’t have to deal with the frustration of hunting around the site, trying to find out where to go or what to do in order to complete a given task. Instead, the site’s design guides you toward what you need.
For example, with Mailchimp, the simplicity and beauty of the application—complete with illustrative graphics—allows users to easily figure out how to use its many advanced features on their own.
“I feel in control”
Happy design not only helps guide users to where they want to go and what they want to do, it also gives them lots of end-destination or goal options. No matter which path a user chooses, the site should help guide that user along her chosen path.
For example, Mapbox—an open source mapping platform used by companies like Foursquare and Uber—provides its users with lots of possible goals. Users have autonomy to customize their maps and use them however they want, and the site’s design is there to guide them along whatever path they choose.
“I Feel Free”
Happy design allows users numerous ways of interacting with the site which can include multimedia, games, reading, and the ability to comment on or respond to what they’ve read. Education sites such as Coursera and EdX take all learning styles into consideration and include tools to make many students with a certain level of determination successful.
These sites include video lectures on virtually any topic imaginable, peer-to-peer social learning tools, immediate feedback and opportunities for students to redo assignments, peer assessments, labs that seem more like games than work, virtual 3D model building, and more.
The ability to interact with both online tools and other people in so many varied ways not only makes users happier, it also allows all students the opportunity to learn and grow.
edX gives users access to almost 10,000 courses, many of which they would not have access to otherwise. Many, such as the very popular, self-paced course, CS50 gives students from all over the world a taste of a Harvard education including access to lectures, student study groups and assignments.
“I Feel Taken Care Of”
Pavislak beautifully says that happy design should treat users like friends and a product should feel as if it was designed with their needs in mind. This means a product’s voice should sound personal rather than stuffy. Any problems the user experiences are dealt with in a friendly and apologetic manner.
Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to think of online banking software as a friend. Then Simple came along.
In addition to beautiful design and ease of use, this service includes a dedicated, friendly, and truly personable support system.
Sites and services like this one give users the (true!) impression that behind every product is a person. As one of Pamela Pavliscak’s subjects noted, “You know, I think there is a real person in there somewhere.”
“This is Beautiful”
Aesthetics play a large role in how we feel, learn and respond. The truth is beautiful applications are, simply put, more trustworthy upon first glance. Are elements in balance? Is the type legible? Are these colors pleasing?
In 1960, journalist Gordon Young asked Jung, “What do you consider to be more or less basic factors making for happiness in the human mind?” Jung’s answer included, “The faculty for perceiving beauty in art and nature.”
Why should we care about user happiness?
Happy users, meaning those that self-report positive emotions after visiting your site or using your product, are more likely to return to your site, more likely to be loyal, and to forgive you when problems, such as bugs or crashes, inevitably happen.
Also, happy users do your advertising for you, telling their friends and spreading your product through word of mouth.
Fortunately, for consumers, we are in an era where we have a choice between a huge variety of applications that can solve our problems or moderately improve our lives. Why settle for anything less when something better may be around the corner?