Fuelling design innovation through positive psychology

How subjective wellbeing can be decoded to create life-enriching design experiences: An insight into the Design for Wellbeing approach.

Our society and we as humans living within it are driven by the aim of reaching a state of wellbeing. To feel happy and satisfied with life we thrive to spend our time well with loved ones and activities which fulfil our individual desires, objectives and needs. Since wellbeing not only enhances the overall quality of life of an individual, but also relates to their environment and the lives of others around them, it has become a marker of a prosperous society and economy as well as human health.

The need for wellbeing has fuelled the emergence of an ‘experience’ economy, based around the desire for positive experiences, rather than the desire to possess goods for their material value. We believe this new economy demands a fresh design approach. And we are not alone in this.

The desire to put theory into practice brought us together with our partners, the University of Siegen, the Happiness Research Organisation, and ixdp., a digital design agency.. Together we are currently developing and evaluating an applicable innovation and design process as part of the joint three-year funded project  “Design for Wellbeing”.

Marc Hassenzahl, professor at the University of Siegen who is focusing on applying research and models of positive psychology to the field of Experience Design, constituted the theory of enhancing subjective wellbeing through positive experiences and made it applicable to a design process.

So how can we as designers approach wellbeing?

The study of wellbeing is divided into subjective and objective wellbeing. On an economic and political level, organisations like the OECD constantly monitor objective indicators of wellbeing such as education, environment, work-life balance and safety across countries to guide governments in creating an environment which fosters wellbeing.

Have a look at the OECD Better Life Index.

On an individual level, researchers in the area of positive psychology measure subjective indicators by analysing candidate psychological needs, such as the ten defined by Sheldon and expanding on the insights gained to peer groups and later on to society as a whole.

More detailed insights: “Testing 10 candidate psychological needs”

Why focus on subjective wellbeing?

We as designers are trained to empathize with the user. The design process and the development of a new product constantly circles around creating solutions and positive experiences based on the user’s needs and desires. Approaching wellbeing from a subjective user perspective builds upon this foundation and takes us a level deeper on the user needs scale.

Not only are we now able to identify needs related to the usability and functionality of a concept, but we are also able to understand user’s deeper psychological needs. These insights can be used to guide and shape our design and innovation process.

The architecture of wellbeing: How wellbeing arises in social practices

Researchers in the field of positive psychology have determined that subjective wellbeing is influenced by three main factors. 50% is predetermined by our genes (how positively or negatively we generally perceive life), 10% is influenced by our environment and living conditions (education, income, health, place of residence) and 40% by our daily activities. This 40% is an area in which we as designers can have a large impact on the subjective wellbeing of users.

Interesting read: “Pursuing Happiness: The architecture of sustainable change” 

Sociology defines daily activities, so called practices, as being determined by three elements: the meaning behind an activity (expectations, reasoning), the skills required to perform the activity (knowledge, abilities) and the material necessary (objects, tools, infrastructure). Depending on the context of an activity these elements and subsequently the meaning of the activity can change.

More about “The Dynamics of Social Practice”.

The meaning in a practice is closely related to the satisfaction of psychological needs. As Marc Hassenzahl et al. argues, a positive experience only results from an activity when the meaning behind it is fulfilled and at least one psychological need such as security, competence or physical thriving is met.

Source: Hassenzahl, M. et al., 2013. Designing Moments of Meaning and Pleasure. Experience Design and Happiness. International Journal of Design, 7(3), pp.21–31.

Daily practices play a major role in subjective wellbeing and are by their nature dynamic. For this reason, they have a high potential for enhancing wellbeing and serve as an approachable starting point for us as designers. By understanding the interplay of meaning, skills and materials and their influence on psychological needs, it becomes possible for designers to impact and shape daily practices for the better by modifying the material.

Case study: Enhancing wellbeing in the practice of flossing

The first case study of our funded project focused on daily dental care. Early on in the case study, during interviews and observation, we identified a high potential for raising wellbeing in the practice of flossing. By asking users about the meaning within the practice, as well as the skills and materials required to perform the activity, we learned that there is a high desire for better feedback during the activity.

The desire for feedback is closely related to the need for security (“I feel familiar / trusted”). In the practice of flossing we additionally found that better feedback would also cover the need for competence (“I feel in charge”) and physical thriving (“I feel healthy / clean / fresh”).

Thanks to this learning, it became evident to us that there is an opportunity for enhancing the flossing experience by modifying the material. In order to validate whether we had covered the desire for feedback in an effective manner, we created a variety of concepts which we evaluated with users. The insights gained serve as the basis for our first prototype.

This approach has taken us a level deeper on the user needs scale. Not only are we now able to identify needs related to the usability and functionality of a concept, but we are also able to understand user’s deeper psychological needs. These insights can be used to guide and shape our design and innovation process.

How can we validate that wellbeing is enhanced?

One of our project partners, the Happiness Research Organisation, specializes in making subjective wellbeing and happiness measurable. With the help of their expertise and tools, we have validated the concepts according to their wellbeing factor. This assures that our decisions and process result in the desired outcome: more wellbeing in daily practises, resulting in a higher level of happiness for users.

Using methods and insights from positive psychology to deeper engage with users may at first sound complex and academic, but by analysing social practices and related psychological needs, the influencing factors in subjective wellbeing have become tangible for us. Defining the satisfaction of psychological needs as the core of our design and innovation process, it breathes wellbeing and aims to shape life-enriching experiences.

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The Design for Wellbeing project is funded by the LeitmarktAgentur.NRW (OP EFRE NRW).

Förderkennzeichen: EFRE 0800005