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.

Who Moved My Navigation Menu? Considering Users’ Feelings in the Redesign Process

confused cat

At this year’s IA Summit, Joe Sokohl gave a talk titled The Digital Place You Love is Gone, which touched on the loss people feel when a digital space they know well changes. People don’t like change in the digital realm any more than they like it in the “real” world. Such change can make users feel stupid, anxious, or even angry. When the Q&A website Answerbag changed its design in 2009, some of its old functionality failed and existing threads were deleted by mistake. The loss was keenly felt by long-time users, as seen below. Site activity decreased significantly, and some users departed for similar sites.

answerbag screenshot

Clearly, users will not stand for this kind of change if they have other options. It is therefore important to prevent or compensate for negative feelings when changing a site’s design. A few examples of best practice are outlined below.

Test for the best

In usability testing, a lot of focus is placed on identifying trouble spots. This is understandable, but it is just as important to find out what is working well. In an evaluation of Netflix’s redesigned website, one user specifically mentioned his pleasure at finding that he was still able to filter results by subgenre. Christina Wodtke quoted John Gournville to point out that because “losses have a far greater impact on people than similarly sized gains”, users consider the loss of their familiar and comfortable site significantly more important than any advantages the redesign provides. Therefore, if you remove features beloved by users, they are unlikely to stick around long enough to see any of your improvements.

Communicate with users

Communicating with users before, during and after a redesign is essential. Using the website itself as well as all available social media channels to let users know what you’re doing and why will decrease the number of users who receive a huge shock the first day they visit the revised site. This announcement from Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is a terrific explanation of the redesign of the Physician Compare website because it:

  • Explains the reasoning and goals behind the redesign (so that users don’t feel the changes were arbitrary)
  • Describes the enhancements offered by the new design
  • Offers a means of providing feedback

Make the smallest changes required for the biggest improvements

If possible, it’s best to redesign in phases, and allow users to gradually adjust to changes. Sites like Amazon have had great success in making subtle changes over an extended time period. Along the same lines, Louis Rosenfeld argues that tuning is better than redesigning. He justifies his point by referring to the the Zipf curve below (illustration by Eva-Lotta) a construct that shows how a very small number of frequently searched queries make up a large amount of search traffic. The same holds true for content – most users are looking for only a small percentage of what a website offers. Rosenfeld states that once you have identified the most critical information needs (the dragon’s head), you can make tweaks that are small, but have enormous impact.

zipf curve

Give users a way back

A redesigned site tells users that they are not in control. Something that they have used, perhaps daily, has changed without their consent and where they were formerly experts they are now novices again. When Google redesigned its inbox in 2011, users were initially able to opt in to the new layout. If they decided to revert to the old version, they were asked for feedback as to why, along with a gentle reminder that the new version would soon be the norm. This method gave users back some feeling of control by allowing them to opt in rather than have the new look forced upon them. They were given the option of adjusting in their own time, and the request for feedback let users know that their opinions were important.

google revert

At the heart of all of these techniques is the need to always involve, consider and reassure users, rather than blaming them for disliking change. As Ryan Freitas aptly put it, “The moment you succumb to the notion that “users just hate change,” you’ve ceased designing for your audience.”

Design Critique: NSF’s FastLane System (proposal functions)

NSF Proposal Page

FastLane is the online system used by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the management of research proposals and awards. This critique focuses on the system functions related to proposal creation. The proposal template provided by FastLane is comprised of a list of forms, which are edited by selecting the ‘Go’ button to the left of each form’s name.

Proposal Checklist

Design Problem 1: FastLane is low on error tolerance.

The Remainder of the Cover Sheet section (a sub-section of the Cover Sheet which contains information such as the proposal title) contains a combination of nearly 50 drop-down menus, checkboxes and text fields that can potentially be completed. At the end of the form are two buttons; one, marked ‘OK’, saves the form and takes the user back to the main Cover Sheet section but the other, marked ‘Go Back’, takes the user back to the main Cover Sheet section without saving the form. The similarity of the buttons and their proximity to one another could easily cause a description error, in which a user clicks ‘Go Back’ when intending to select ‘OK’ and loses all of her work.

Go Back and OK

Solution 1: Change button labels to “Save” and “Cancel.”

To increase understandability of the system, the names of the buttons should be changed to ‘Save’ and ‘Cancel’. This would create a clearer mapping between the button names and their function. Slips can be avoided by separating the buttons so that the chance of selecting the wrong one is decreased. An interlock function should also be used to prevent users from clicking the ‘Cancel’ button without indicating via checkbox that that is what they wish to do.

Suggested Fix 1 - Save and Cancel

Design Problem 2: There are no constraints to enforce character limits.

The Project Summary form provides three text boxes (each covering a specific aspect of the project). The total character count for the three boxes together must not exceed 4,600 characters, yet there is no character counter, nor are there any constraints to prevent users from entering more than the character limit. Visibility is limited, with the information on maximum character count given only in a single sentence in an entire page of instructions given above the text boxes.

No character count limit

Solution 2: Add a character counter to each text box.

In order to narrow the gulf of execution, a character counter should appear to the right of the boxes and track the total character count for all three boxes. This would clarify what the boxes afford in terms of text length. By using a counter similar to that employed by Twitter, FastLane would also provide feedback on exactly how many characters are left or must be eliminated (the highlighting seen below would appear only in the text box selected at the time). This is more useful than imposing a constraint which prevents text from being entered after a character limit has been reached, as people are seldom able to immediately identify text they wish to cut.

Twitter character counter

Design Problem 3: No indication that items are incomplete.

When a user enters more than 4,600 characters in the Project Summary form, FastLane allows the summary to be saved and brings up the screen below. This is helpful for a user who doesn’t have time to edit for length at that moment, and averts arbitrary truncation.

Saved above char count

However, once the user returns to the list of forms, there is no further feedback given to indicate that the Project Summary is unfinished.

checklist doesn't mention char count

Solution 3: Add more precise feedback to indicate status of the submission.

In order to narrow the gulf of evaluation, the form list should provide exact feedback on the status of the Project Summary section, as seen below. This mental aid will remind the user to return to the section later.

char count exceeded