Designing for Happiness: An Interview with Pamela Pavliscak

Elements of Happiness - Pamela Pavliscak

I spoke with Pamela Pavliscak, UX researcher, data scientist, and founder at Change Sciences. I was interested in how Pamela’s background in Information Science influences her work today. Pamela also spoke about Positive Design, the challenges she faced and still faces with Change Sciences, the future of the field, and what she reads to stay up-to-date.

Diana: Can you describe the first moments you became interested in the fields of data, research, and design?
Pamela: Like a lot of people in the field, I didn’t take a direct path. I studied Russian in college. Immersing myself in a new language and a new culture taught me the importance of remaining curious and open to new experiences. I eventually got interested in technology. But I continue to approach learning about technology like learning about a new culture.
D: How does your background in Information Science influence your work today?
P: I talk to people, I watch what they do, I share their moments with technology. It’s a little messy. That’s research. I know, on some level, I should embrace the mess. But I’m not a kind of person who loves all the messiness. My impulse is to find patterns and create categories. With a background in Information Science, I have a basic framework to make sense of it.
D: As a pioneer in the movement of Positive Design, how did you come to this notion?
P: A couple of years ago, I started noticing study after study looking at the negative impact of technology. At the same time, I would hear about all the positive moments people have with technology in fieldwork. There was a disconnect. And I thought to myself, “What am I doing? Have I devoted my life to technology just to make people miserable?” So I decided to make happiness the focus of my research.
D: Did you encounter any obstacles while starting Change Sciences?
P: Considering that Change Sciences works between two fields in flux—UX and data science—there is no shortage of challenges. It’s a matter of constant adaptation. For me, that’s the fun of it. I want to experiment, to discover new things and to keep learning. Throughout the years, the biggest challenge continues to be how to explain what we do!
D: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing your industry today?
P: Balancing privacy and respect for the individual against collecting data is incredibly important. We can learn a lot about our conflicted relationship with technology from the traces people leave behind—their data trail. Yet, we have to tread carefully. Because data is anonymized behaviors in aggregate, it is abstract. That makes it harder to see that it is really all about people.
D: How do you see the field changing in the next 5, 10 years?
P: UX is a relatively new way of framing what we do, but I think it’s likely to become something else again. I see more collaboration happening across business, marketing, development, and design. Many forward-thinking organizations are adding behavioral economists, data scientists, and anthropologists to technology teams, too. The more perspectives and the more data sources, the better the experience will be in the end. So it’s a positive trend.
D: What do you like most about what you do?
P: The fieldwork is my real love. Most of what I’ve learned is because of the funny, wise, and generous people who share a bit of their time with me. I live for those little flashes of insight. Sometimes those moments can emerge from working with data from analytics or a larger-scale study, but there’s something special about those moments when they are linked with a person and their story.
D: What do you read to stay up-to-date on developments in your field?
P: My circuit is Pew Internet research, Harvard Business Review, Scientific American Mind, among others. Whenever I read about a new study, I take some time to understand how the research was conducted and how the data was analyzed. Context is everything when it comes to research, and often it’s the part that is left out of an article.