It’s 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, and I log into my project management software to review my work for the week. I immediately see what I was working on last and where my team members have made progress—all of their contributions marked with their names and pictures. I laugh when I read a colleague’s latest comments; I can imagine her voice, and it feels as though she is right here with me, sharing a coffee, rather than miles away in a different time zone.

Can software make you happy? Somehow I derive a modest amount of joy from the project management software I use. Very often, though, software makes us feel bored, isolated, or even angry. How do some technologies manage to give us feelings of joy, pride, or connection, while others do not?

This isn’t just an academic question. Most of us are spending more time than ever using technology, particularly at work: In a McKinsey report, Michael Chui and his colleagues point out that in the modern work environment, managers and professionals spend an average of 28 hours each week interacting with media and technology. Instead of feeling dull, unpleasant, or downright frustrating, what if these interactions could actually foster positive emotions? Our dozens of hours of weekly screen time would be transformed into opportunities to elevate our mood and sense of well-being—and thus elevate the emotional tone of our daily lives.

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There are numerous formal workplace wellness programs that aim to increase employees’ physical and emotional well-being and make their work feel meaningful by adding something to the day, like meditation. As effective as they may be, they do little to make the everyday tasks we’re already doing—checking email, working on spreadsheets, writing text—more healthy, meaningful, or even joyful.

So where does software fit in? Our team at the Information Experience and Design Research Group at Stuttgart Media University believes that we should actively design software products to foster a more positive user experience (UX) whenever people interact with them. That way, no matter what else people do—whether or not they are actively working on their own well-being or have access to a wellness program—the technologies they use will be quietly supporting happy, positive experiences rather than detracting from them.

Six types of positive user experiences

According to researcher Marc Hassenzahl, the UX of a product is good when the user feels positive while interacting with it. And the user feels good when his psychological needs are fulfilled, including the human need to feel capable, free, and close to others. 

To build positive experiences at work, one approach is to ask people about the positive experiences they’re already having offline, and then use this knowledge to create new experiences in a digital context. We interviewed about 400 participants of different ages and occupations, including students, engineers, landscape gardeners, teachers, personal trainers, military servicemen, social workers, and retirees, about their experiences at work. They told us about 350 positive experiences they had, which we then analyzed to see whether we could find any underlying patterns.

Our analysis revealed 17 different categories of positive experiences at work that, in turn, can be clustered into six themes. When technology is designed according to these categories, this creates more possibilities for positive experiences during our daily work routines. Here are the six types of positive user experiences.

1. Resonance: Receiving feedback, giving feedback, and receiving appreciation. We all know how good it feels when we don’t just work in a vacuum but receive feedback about our efforts. Then, we feel seen and useful—particularly if the feedback is positive. Feedback strengthens our sense that we can succeed and fulfills our psychological need to feel competent.

Software can easily provide feedback about what we have achieved, and research suggests that getting feedback on your progress during a computer task feels good and helps you concentrate more. For example, in a software designing class we taught, one group of students designed a video reel that would show the user his last 50 actions in a 3D design program. Reels like this are used in video games to make gamers feel pride in their performance. When the 3D software users see the video reel, they might experience a similar feeling of pride and motivation as they return to work on a project.

Gratitude is one specific kind of positive feedback we get from others, which helps build and maintain our relationships, and it can also be incorporated into software. For example, in cooperation with a CRM company, we created design concepts to improve the UX of their content management software. This included a feature allowing users to send a quick thank you to their coworkers to appreciate their cooperation.

Thank you button is an example of positive UX By clicking the button (A), a user thanks their coworker.

2. Social support: Helping others, receiving help, and teaching others. Compared to resonance, social support refers to the positive experiences on the two sides of a supportive interaction, such as helping or teaching. Being asked for help or being able to give good advice makes us feel proud and valuable.

Software can offer us opportunities to help and teach. In cooperation with a software company, we worked on improving the user experience of their distribution software. In the existing version of the software, salespeople could store information about current and potential customers whom they interact with repeatedly. We included a function where they could enter informal information about the customers—like their hobbies, how many children they have, or their upcoming travel. Rather than just uploading all their knowledge about a customer into a database (where it would disappear into the abyss), the salespeople could share it to help colleagues who might visit this customer in the future.

Keeping personal notes about customers is an example of positive UX A: A word cloud displaying words often associated with the customer, like talkative, drives a motorcycle, etc. B: Notes from recent conversations with the customer, including the fact that he bought a new motorcycle.

3. Challenge: Being given a challenge and rising to a challenge. Rising to a challenge feels good when a task is demanding but still manageable. Software can support complex and demanding tasks by providing all the information and functionality required, so that we can focus on problem-solving. This does not mean that software should be designed so it is deliberately hard to use and poses a challenge in itself, but rather that it allows the user to notice that they have risen to a challenge.

4. Engagement: Solving a problem and experiencing creativity. We feel good when our minds are fully engaged, working intensely until we find a solution or coming up with new and creative ideas. This kind of deep work is something that software can support.

For example, if we’re working on a difficult task, it might not be easy to find an optimal solution on our first try. Software can allow for multiple versions and plans, so that ideas can change and evolve without early attempts being lost forever. Ultimately, users can choose the best alternative from the different saved options.

Several prototyping tools support this by autosaving changes in different versions. This is a case where a feature that was designed to do something completely different (to store information and to ensure that no information gets lost) can support new types of experiences—allowing the user to take risks, explore, and try things out because they know their changes to a piece of code, a text document, or an image will not be irreversible.

5. Organization: Finishing a task and keeping track of things. Have you ever finished a task and felt lost or overwhelmed, unsure what to turn to next? Our research suggests that people have positive experiences when software allow them to keep an overview of an entire project and how their current tasks fit into it.

Indeed, when we interviewed the users of a project management tool, we found that one positive experience for project managers was to file away completed tasks. To support this experience, one idea might be to have software illustrate completed tasks in the form of a tower that gets higher with every checked-off item.

A tower illustrating completed tasks is an example of positive UX Completed tasks can be filed away by putting them on a tower which gets higher with every completed task (concept by Felix Bell, Florian Frick, and Alexander König).

6. Communication and new experiences: Connecting with others, exchanging ideas, experiencing something new, creating something together, and contributing to something greater. Feeling like we belong in a team or a company is important to our sense of meaningfulness at work, and we have found that technology can support this, as well. For the 3D simulation program, we developed a way to show users that they were working together to contribute to something greater. In our design, when engineers open the program, they see on the screen how many other engineers are using their 3D model and where they are located. Our studies showed that this gave the engineers a greater feeling of meaning.

Showing where your software is being used is an example of positive UX The overview displays the different locations where people are using the 3D model, including the number of users and uses of it (concept by Julia Bachert, Hannah Eberl, Natascha Lux, und Nico Schlegel).

The ethics of positive UX

The aim of designing for a positive UX in workplace technology is to help people have fulfilling experiences when they interact with it. But is positive UX just a way for employers to manipulate people into working longer hours, or for corporations to keep us addicted to their technology?

Of course, we believe that positive UX should be used to boost people’s happiness, not for these other purposes. The main focus is the positive feeling users have when completing work tasks. Nevertheless, that positive feeling may have certain side effects—like people working faster because the design supports their concentration, people being more loyal to certain products, or people spending more time at work if it becomes more gratifying (so they feel less urge to escape from unpleasant, frustrating technology).

Designing for positive UX in professional software can help plant the seeds for a new way of thinking about how we design workplaces and working conditions in general. Some people are already exploring similar ideas under the framework of Positive Design—designing products to help people make moral decisions, experience positive emotions, and pursue their personal goals—and Positive Computing—designing computers to support psychological well-being and human potential.

Positive approaches like these mean moving away from a focus on efficiency to put human well-being front and center. We spend so much time at work, and work is an essential source of our self-image and self-confidence, not to mention our livelihood. But professional software—compared to many apps and games we use in our leisure time—puts much less emphasis on creating positive user experiences. Why can’t this part of our lives be engaging, pleasurable, and meaningful, too?

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