Women In UX: Meet Pamela Pavliscak, Pioneer of Designing for Happiness

by Sheena Lyonnais

posted on 04-27-2017

The device you’re reading this article on, how does it make you feel?

Questions like this fuel the work of digital anthropologist and user experience researcher Pamela Pavliscak, founder of Change Sciences. She explores the emotional relationship we have with technology and the impacts it can have on our well-being.

“On the one hand, we want technology to kind of just disappear, be rational, help us when we need it and then go away. That makes perfect sense, but the problem with that is we are not rational and logical,” Pavliscak said. “The technology that’s in our lives, we develop attachments [to it], have strange rituals around our use and how we explain how it works. We don’t realize that we have emotions when we use, say, an app or a device, but we do. They’re just kind of rippling under the surface.”

She’s covered the topic at SXSW and TEDx, in her lectures at the Pratt Institute School of Information where she is a faculty member, and in the O’Reilly book she is currently writing called Designing for Happiness. It’s a conversation that captured her attention when she realized how negatively technology is discussed across our cultural landscape—how it can encroach on our lives, make us miserable and distract us from what’s important.

She’s discovered that we are in the midst of a “renaissance of psychology,” one that doesn’t just attempt to get at the root of a cause, but asks how the root can grow into something more meaningful. She saw what was being explored in psychology and thought, how can we do that with technology?

A UX Pioneer

A career in design wasn’t Pavliscak’s original plan. She initially studied cultural studies and comparative literature in the early 90s before becoming intrigued by technology and switching majors to study informational and library sciences at the University of Michigan. She took courses in disciplines like human computer interaction and became fascinated by the relationship between technology and humans.

This was right before the “library sciences” portion got dropped from the name of the degree. It was a time when there were a high number of women were graduating with informational and library sciences, about a 50/50 gender split she said, and many of her professors were also women.

I think that’s a cool aspect of the history of tech,” she said. “There was a strong culture of women leaders. It’s interesting how it feels sometimes like we’ve gone a little bit backwards because that is where it was in the mid 90s.”

Her first job out of university was also her first foray into user experience design, though the title didn’t exactly exist at the time. She was part of a team at the New York Public Library that was tasked with digitizing the library’s resources while conserving the documents and making them appealing to Internet users. “My role was to figure out how are people going to want to access this stuff and use it? And how can we put it out there?”

This early work is still part of the New York Public Library’s core digital collections, but Pavliscak moved on to agency life where she started immersing herself more in the research side of user experience. When the bubble burst, the agency went under and Pavliscak was surprised to find that clients she had worked with were beginning to develop increasing interest in the value of user research on design. The opportunity to become an entrepreneur presented itself and Change Sciences was born.

Designing a Happy Life

“I’d never really thought about starting my own company, but then I thought well, here are some people approaching me and I want a more flexible schedule so I can have a dog—those two things together kind of clinched the deal,” she laughed.

Getting other companies to believe in and invest in research was a challenge at first, but Pavliscak never looked back. After she got married and had kids, the flexibility of having her own company played a major role in her decision not to sell the company or move on to other opportunities. “We’re still at a point where it’s pretty hard, once your life starts getting a little more complicated, to balance that against a lot of the work environments still in tech,” she said.

The growing adaptation of UX research and usability testing has kept Pavliscak moving forward, with her work now also exploring ethnography, analytics, biometrics and emotion sensing.

“The field has evolved over the years from this point of do we really need to do that much research, to we’re going to some casual on the side research, to okay we’re going to get really serious about this and try to understand people because technology is such an integral part of peoples’ lives now,” she said.

Because of this co-dependency on technology that design culture sometimes feels users need to be rewarded in some way in order to feel positive about an experience. Pavliscak said it’s not uncommon for designers to unintentionally take advantage of certain cognitive biases users exhibit simply due to the way design culture is structured at this time.

“A lot of behavioral design is saying people are in this negative place, they have FOMO, they have anxiety, they have depression, they have loneliness. We’re going to solve that for a little while and make sure they keep coming back every time they feel bad for a little quick hit of a notification, or something that feels good, a fun news story or a meme,” she said. “That’s okay to a point, but when that drives so much of design decision-making, I think we need some new lenses to look at our design methods.”

UX Gets Emotional

These days, Pavliscak’s work focuses on an umbrella of happiness that also includes meaning, connection, authenticity and compassion. It’s about looking at the way humans respond to certain user experiences, examining what that says about their values on a deeper level, and using that to create designs that contribute more to an individual or a group’s overall well-being.

“There are lots of things we know in terms of what people value on a personal level as far as well-being,” she said. “It’s self-awareness and personal growth, it’s meaningful relationships with other people and a sense of belonging, it’s the ability to give or contribute in some way, whether that’s contributing knowledge or compassion or altruism. There’s things have an application directly in lots of well-being apps and devices that are geared toward mental or physical well-being that I think could be brought over to other circumstances and to a lot of other apps and devices.”

However, this is complicated and it raises a lot of questions. Is it a designer’s job to make their users happy? Is trying to make a user feel a certain way an appropriate design tactic? Is intervening, even if it’s in a positive manner, a recommended technique for designers to consider?

“People are going to make meaning out of their experience no matter what we do,” Pavliscak said. “People are going to take from our designs what they need from it in their experience.”

When Tech and Design Start Driving the Conversation

A lot of this comes back to ethics.

“Technology is becoming such a huge, rich, deeply-embedded part of our lives, that as a field we’re very engaged in this question of how do [designers] want to insinuate ourselves in peoples lives? How are we going to make ourselves a part of peoples’ lives without exploiting their data, driving them to distraction or madness, or having this negative effect on well-being?”

While the conversations designers are having aren’t always framed around happiness and well-being, these topics are the undercurrent to many of the discussions about the future of design, Pavliscak says.

“We’re at this inflection point where we can all see wow this is all coming, automation is real now, autonomous cars are real, chat bots are a part of our lives everyday now. It’s becoming I think a more pressing issue now to consider; how are we going to live well with the technology in our lives and use it to create not only pleasure, but purpose?”

Technology is becoming so advanced that data about the relationship between users, their devices and their emotions is already becoming available. This information, Pavliscak said, is going to force designers to rethink their approach to emotion and design.

“We’re going to have to make decisions about what we detect, how we interpret that, and how we adapt the experience,” she said. “That’s going to have a huge impact on where this conversation goes.”

To read more about Pamela Pavliscak’s research on happiness and UX design, check out her blog on Change Sciences and look for her book, Designing For Happiness, available through O’Reilly this fall.

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