UX and Happiness: An Interview with Pamela Pavliscak


Pamela Pavliscak is a design researcher who specializes in emotional intelligence and positive design. She is the founder of Change Sciences, a research think tank that investigates the way people experience technology in order to ensure that client companies provide the most positive experiences possible. She is currently writing a book, Designing for Happiness, to be published later this year.

On March 7th, I had the pleasure of chatting with Pamela via Skype. As an aspiring UX researcher, I was most intrigued by her work on happiness and her take on the word ‘user’.

You worked for the NYPL, and then your next title was UX Manager – how did you make that transition into the UX field?

That was a while ago! What happened was I was at NYPL on their digital team. These days they have a pretty developed digital lab and they’re doing a lot of good work – at that point it was all just starting up. I was there for less than two years and the whole internet thing was getting really interesting. I had friends doing agency work, so it was easy to make the transition. I don’t think it was even called UX at the time. I had a degree in HCI, but I was doing everything – research, design, coding.

What was it like being there, in the early days of the field?

It was really exciting; a lot of super-talented people were involved. It felt like we were making it up as we went along, but I think it always feels like that with technology. Now we’ve got emotional intelligence, internet of things, new kinds of experiences that we haven’t encountered before. We’ve been designing for screens for what seems like forever, but it really hasn’t been that long at all.

What was the most challenging aspect of founding Change Sciences?

I don’t know because there continue to be challenges, and they change. When I started it was all just figuring out logistics of business. I think the continuing challenge is keeping things fresh and looking at new ways of doing things. It would be easy to stay in, for instance, qualitative usability testing. It’s sort of a privilege and a challenge at the same time. It’s this continual nudge towards greater things, even though sometimes I think ‘Can’t it just stay still for a minute?’

Do you have any tricks for keeping current on trends in design and technology?

I don’t know if I really have any tricks, except I’m on Twitter way too often. I follow smart people who know so much. And Feedly, I check that once a day to see what’s going on, and it’s pretty manageable, usually only a few things that really catch my attention.

What is the happiest moment of your career so far? 

I don’t know if there’s one big one, I mean speaking at South By Southwest; even just getting into SXSW was a big milestone for me. That was the bliss-out joyful moment. I’m so lucky that a lot of my research involves everyday people engaging with technology. They’re such wise, amazing individuals, so every project I do, I just have these moments of wow, I don’t know if you know what you just said, but it is super amazing,

Do you have any tips on interviewing?

I’ve gone back and forth on this. I used to be pretty strict with myself on following established practice, but the greatest stuff comes out of rapport. There’s bias from the moment you decide to recruit a certain type of person; the point is to acknowledge the bias and move on. Now I treat it like a conversation, like we’ve met over coffee. I guess one trick I have that everyone could use is I start with people giving me a tour of their phone. It’s the center of all the things that are important to you. Once people show me what they do and what’s important to them, it’s easy to build rapport.

In one of your talks, you mentioned accounting for the fact that some people are naturally more happy than others. Do you find that people who are naturally happier experience more happy moments with technology?

I don’t know if it’s more happiness, but the quality is different. Happier people seem to be spending less time playing games than people who are less happy. I think that may be because the games actually make them feel happier. I think happier people tend to share their experience with tech meaning that they pass their phones back and forth and show each other what is on their screens.

You’ve spoken at a ton of events and led workshops – what would you say is the most important element of an effective presentation?

Couching everything in a story. There are tactical, go-home-and-do-this type presentations, then there are the inspirational, big idea presentations – let’s move forward with bravery and enthusiasm – but I think for each of those what makes a really great presentation is embedding it in a relatable, personal story that everyone can gather around the campfire and share.

Is there any app or other tech that you would like to see developed, that you think would increase happiness?

The more I study happiness the more I realize it’s connected to meaning rather than pleasure and joy and delight, so I think it would be hard to develop one thing that would provide that experience. I am really excited about all the emotion-sensing technology – eye-tracking, voice recognition, biometrics, all this stuff that is finding its way into products. I think there’s a lot of new ways to help us develop empathy.

How is your book going?

I’m still aiming for the end of 2016. It’s interesting though, I find I’m not a very linear writer. I’m supposed to be writing chapter by chapter, but I’m actually writing a little bit of each at a time. It’s allowed me to work with some very interesting people who are doing great work in the field.

It’s a very cool field to be in, whatever it’s going to be called in the future. It probably won’t be called UX for much longer.

What term do you think might replace UX?

I just think the term user is going to be less relevant. That term emerged during a time when we sat down in front of a computer for all of our interactions. People don’t feel that way about it anymore – you don’t use technology, it’s just an everyday artifact. I think the other reason it’s becoming outmoded as a term is that it puts the technology in the power position, with the human being as its subject. What do you call the people on the other side, besides a human being? You have visitors to a museum, viewers for a TV show. Even that is changing, it’s not one-directional anymore. I don’t know what it would be called as the mission continues to broaden.

Follow Pamela on Twitter and Medium.