Can We Design for Wellbeing?

Remember not so long ago, when tech was supposed to make our lives better? While that still may be true, it's no longer the whole story.

Remember not so long ago, when tech was supposed to make our lives better? We’d be more productive at work. We’d reconnect with friends near and far. We’d enjoy all the world’s information at our fingertips.

While that still may be true, it’s no longer the whole story. Tech is chipping away at happiness:

On most days, we waver between elation at bitcoin valuations while we fret over its insatiable energy needs. We marvel at driverless cars while we wonder what we’ll do while we commute. We thrill to the convenience of Amazon Go and worry about the end of the corner store.

This emotional rollercoaster leaves us wondering whether technology can be a part of a life well lived. Or, will technology always be something that has to be constantly held at bay.

That’s where happiness comes in.

More Than a Feeling


Photo by on Unsplash

When we consider happiness, or any emotion for that matter, we think about an instinctual feeling that crops up due to something in the world around us. We see a puppy scampering toward us, our mouth softens into a smile, and we feel happy. Or in internet terms, we scroll through our feed, notice an adorable doggo, and tap the heart.

In design, we’ve come up with ways to craft small moments of delight by paying attention to the details. Whether it’s a cursor that leaves a sparkle trail or a clever error message, the aim is to spark joy. Delight is a bonus on top of an already useful and usable experience.

Delight is innocent enough, but we can take designing for happiness too far. Once we start designing for happiness as a variable reward, it ultimately results in misery.

Either way, this view of happiness is much too narrow. When psychologists, sociologists, and behavioral economists study happiness, the focus is not on positive feeling, at least not on its own. The study of happiness is about wellbeing in a broader sense.

Wellbeing as Ecosystem

Technology’s contribution to wellbeing is implied in some sense. Let me explain: so far, we’ve taken an evolutionary approach to wellbeing where we solve “primitive” needs for comfort (less often safety and security, but that’s another conversation altogether) and then assume self-actualization will follow.

Tech boosters assure us that AI will free us up from menial work so that we can engage in more lofty occupations, although no one is quite sure what those will be. Autonomous cars will almost certainly leave us time to do something better with our lives, but what? We aren’t quite sure where it will lead, but it feels like progress.

That view of happiness, where only the fortunate few ever make it to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, doesn’t reflect the lived reality of most people. You can still feel love and have purpose whether you are living comfortably or not. At its worst, this view can dehumanize people who find themselves in terrible circumstances. That’s one reason why there’s a shift toward defining wellbeing as an adaptive system of relationships between people, products, and planet.

Something as complex as wellbeing can’t be summarized into a quick list of features. We can’t add it as a step in the process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, wellbeing. It’s not a set of quick tips to implement to polish the experience. So, how can we design for wellbeing?

Design a Human Future

NYC Street scene

Let’s think about it like designing a vibrant city. A lot of the best thinking about design for wellbeing has emerged from the design of cities, from Jane Jacobs’ work in NYC to Terrapin Bright Green’s pattern language for well buildings. There is no formula for a happy city, but it has to include the right elements—mixed use blocks, green spaces, fewer cars and more bike paths. And that’s not enough. It all has to work together.

Here are a few ways to start to apply this kind of thinking to tech:

Change the Goals

Design for wellbeing has to start at the root by changing how we frame success. One way to accomplish this is to model value in the same way economists are starting to do. The GDP doesn’t capture a lot of economic value, from caregiving work to open source software development. More than that, economic measures don’t capture all the other aspects of a good life like a sustainable community or clean water or meaningful relationships. The OECD Better Life Index is one model, considering both individual wellbeing and collective wellbeing.

Include Everyone

Once we make wellbeing a goal, the next question is whose wellbeing? The answer is simple—everyone’s. Wellbeing relies on complex connection between individuals and communities, societies and organizations, so it must be broadly inclusive. Inclusive design encourages us to design for diversity. That’s a good first step. Next, we need adapt our design process to address not only who will benefit but also who will be harmed.

Explore Implications

Wellbeing is not just about an individual’s happiness. It’s dependent on other people as well as communities, societies, governments, and corporations. Drawing from the work of strategic foresight, we can use STEEP (Society, Technology, Economics, Environment , Politics) as a framework to consider implications. Better still, we can align it with wellbeing indices (like Technology, Healthcare, Education, Money, Environment, Society or THEMES) or the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

If we want to design for wellbeing, it’s not enough to encourage people to minimize their time online. Detox design, where apps pop up warnings, hiding people for their time spent is an abdication, not an answer. Instead, we need to change how we design technology from the ground up. And we can start doing that by following the golden rule of design for wellbeing: humanity must flourish.

A guest post by Pamela Pavliscak, a speaker at NEXT17, where she spoke about Generation Z reinventing technology

Also on the subject of Happiness by Design, Martin told us that happiness is a warm gun , while Adam suggested that contentment was a better design target