Happiness at SXSW 2015

Happiness was an emergent theme at SXSW 2015.

Happiness is part of the zeitgeist. Every month there seems to be a new book about happiness coming out, from the bestselling The Happiness Project to Happy City to Hardwiring Happiness. There is Pharrell’s Happy, #100HappyDays, and apps like Happy for Life and Happier.

At SXSW, there was the #HappySoundsLike campaign, raising awareness of International Day of Happiness, and even an ad on the SXSW Go app for a show called Happyish (which didn’t look too happy, actually). Happiness hasn’t quite hit it big at SXSW though, or at least not in the same way as themes of habits, neuroscience, and persuasive design.

And yet, my talk on The Science of Happy Design was full to bursting (my apologies to those who didn’t make it past the line) with super smart people who want to take design in a new, positive direction. If you are curious, you can watch the talk (given earlier this year at WIAD) or view the deck. You can also follow the comments at #happytech on Twitter (warning: a few are not about the presentation).

Because designing toward happiness is the primary focus of my research these days, I made a point to attend talks that touched on positive emotions and design at SXSW. I’ll group them into two categories: Design Using Principles of Positive Design and Technology That Helps Us to Be Happier.

Design Using Principles of Happiness

Well-Designed: Creating Empathy Driven Apps by Jon Kolko (@jkolko) is a story about MyEdu and the people-centered design process. It’s not directly about happiness, but I liked hearing about the research component and I believe that empathy is really the jumping off point for creating anything positive in design. You can watch the Midwest UX version of this talk, too.

In Designing for Trust, Michael Boeke (‪@mvboeke) spoke about how to be cool without being creepy. I include here because trust is one of the five elements that seem to create happiness when it comes to technology. Transparency, integrity, controls, oh, and lots of locks are key to designing for trust. In the end, you can’t make a promise and then just keep it some of the time. The deck is a good walk through of the talk.

Sad to say, I didn’t get in to Alastair Sommerville’s (@Acuity_Design) workshop, Emotion and Inclusion in Wearable Tech Design. I did get a chance to chat with Alastair about his fascinating take on emotion and design though. The workshop was not about only positive emotion, but a hands-on approach to understand human context. The deck shows some of the fun experiments that went on in the workshop.

Technology that Helps Us Get Happier

Positive design is about using patterns and principles to foster happiness. Apps and wearables to track our mood are part of that picture.

Money Can’t Buy Happiness but Data can Teach It was mostly about the Happify app (@happify), which I’ve tried out myself. The idea behind Happify is to leverage the knowledge that comes out of positive psychology and behavioral economics to train people into happiness. Behind the app is a really interesting framework though, which was the most compelling part of this session for me. Savor, Thank, Aspire, Give, Empathize, or STAGE, shares a lot of the same principles that come into play when we look at what makes people happy using technology itself.

I missed this core conversation with Forest Young (@ten_ten) and Gareth Price (@garethsprice), called Wearables & the Happiness Quotient. As intrigued as I am about defining a happiness algorithm from quantified self apps and biometric data, I’m also worried. If we design toward happiness, people will have positive feelings about the experience and will take positive action. But I don’t want to see happiness become about “exploiting happiness for corporate gain” in the vein of “exploiting brain science for corporate gain” (the current trend). I’d love to know which way this conversation tended.

SXSW Next Year

Many, many sessions at SXSW 2015 were hopeful for a positive future, even if there were few sessions focused entirely on happiness. My prediction for next year’s SXSW is that happiness will be one of the big themes that emerge from the conference. Not because it’s trendy, but because people who are designing technology really want to create technology for human potential.