Designing for wellbeing in times of change

Digital product designers and marketers can help people to cope with the world’s new reality

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In times of stress and uncertainty, as the entire world is experiencing now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our perception of life transforms. Facing the fragility of life is one of the scariest thoughts imaginable, and this global event is changing how we perceive reality and make decisions. It changes what we deem to be important and shifts our broader priorities and goals.

One of the main changes that occur to our psychology when we face a global health crisis is a change in our “Time horizon”, which is the subjective perception of how much time we have left to live. When time is perceived as open-ended, we focus more on planning ahead, seek novelty, expand knowledge, explore possibilities and broaden social circles. But When time is perceived as constrained, we focus more on emotional wellbeing, deepening existing relationships and pursuing what we already know to be satisfying.

Such a shift in priorities is typical to older individuals whose time horizon is naturally shorter. Somewhat paradoxically, studies report greater emotional wellbeing and happiness among older individuals who prioritized smaller but stronger social networks. Studies also found that older individuals showed a lower preference to pursue goals that involved emotional burden, in contrast to young individuals who were much more willing to go after their goals despite accompanying unpleasant emotions3.

Aging is not the only factor that shrinks the perceived time horizon. This psychological shift occurs every time we are faced with life’s fragility or a major change, such as moving to another country, a security threat, or a global health crisis. A study on the impact of the 2003 SARS epidemic, revealed that at the peak of the outbreak both younger and older people preferred to interact with a familiar social partner and pursue emotionally meaningful goals. After the outbreak subsided, older people still maintained these goals, while younger people shifted back to pursuing future-oriented aspirations. The most fascinating and surprising finding was that a shorter time horizon was linked to greater wellbeing, even amidst a global health threat3. This means that the current crisis might have a similar, paradoxically positive, impact on psychological wellbeing.

Therefore, it is likely that millions of people right now are prioritizing close social ties and emotionally meaningful experiences due to a shorter time horizon, but struggle to fulfill them due to social distancing and quarantine conditions. The good news is that today in 2020 we have something we didn’t have in 2003 — unprecedented digital connectivity and reliance on digital products to run our lives from home.

Let’s explore 3 methods to do that.

Nudge for connection, not competition

The Nudge Theory is the main behavior design methodology incorporated into digital products today. “Nudging” is the act of influencing decision-making through indirect suggestions and positive refinements. One of the most common ways to “nudge” behavior in digital products is through social influence.

Fitness apps use this principle frequently by ranking users’ activity levels and sending notifications to encourage us to catch up. In video games, social comparison is used to increase engagement and performance, and in the hospitality and travel industries, notifications such as “26 people are looking at this property” are used to create a sense of urgency and fear of missing out.

Studies have found that social comparison and competition nudges are effective, but there’s also evidence that they can be harmful to wellbeing. Specifically, people have developed obsessions to compete against other users of fitness apps and reported high levels of stress and dysfunction6. Researchers also found that the users who suffered the most from using these apps were the ones who sought unilateral recognition and praise from the community members. However, users who engaged in reciprocal communication actually reported an increase in wellbeing.

From the studies on time horizon we know that in times of crisis and uncertainty, we prioritize close connections and meaningful emotional experiences. Learning from that, digital products such as work operating systems (e.g. Monday, Asana), work messaging platform (e.g., Slack, Teams), to-do lists and calendar apps can nudge for moments of personal connection through push notifications. A helpful nudge would be to set alerts for “water cooler breaks” with colleagues. Companies are seen practicing these principles by setting up virtual meetings for socializing. One technology company phrased it as “900 employees worldwide, one virtual coffee break”, other companies hold “Weekly huddles” in small teams and digital lunches. We are also seeing nudges on social media to express gratitude for first responders with gestures like clapping hands at the same time across the country.

In times of uncertainty and changes it is important to audit the “Call to actions” in the marketing material and communication with customers to ensure they invoke feelings of connectedness and attenuate nudges for social comparison or competition.

A social movment to show gratitude to first responders during COVID-19
A social movment to show gratitude to first responders during COVID-19
The #clapbecasuewecare hashtag nudges people to show gratitude to first responders by clapping at the same.

Drive action from a place of passion and intrinsic motivation

Another way to make the best out of the psychological impact of a shortened time horizon is to help people participate in an activity or a topic that’s intrinsically motivating. A study showed that the wellbeing of people in isolation improved if they talked with counselors about a goal-oriented activity they were intrinsically motivated to engage in, but it did not improve if they talked about their problems. So, wellbeing in isolation is not just about social connections, it’s also about what people are connecting about.

Digital organizations can help by tailoring their brand messaging, marketing and retargeting efforts to this change in people’s circumstances and mindset. It is very likely that customers will respond better to messages around passion, empowerment, and intrinsic value rather than to messages about discounts or pricing. For example, one retail company delivered this message: “We believe in the resilience and optimism of our employees and our customers”, and included a hashtag to encourage conversation on social media.

Companies can invoke intrinsic motivation and positive goal-oriented behavior among their employees and customers by collaborating with charities or supporting social initiatives that help in times of crisis. A hospital in Israel, for example, organized a virtual hackathon to find technological solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. An American online accounting company is redirecting its charitable funds to help families that struggle to pay for food. These actions can help both employees and customers to feel they can still act out of volition and passion and leverage digital tools to sustain wellbeing in this difficult time.

behavior design example
behavior design example
Expensify.com encourages user engagement by creating an intrinsically motivating incentive.

Delight customers through peacefulness, not excitement

Another preference change following a shortened time horizon is a tendency to favor peaceful rather than exciting states and experiences. A study that examined 12 million blogs found that individuals with a shorter time horizon associated happiness with peacefulness, in contrast to individuals with a longer time horizon who associated happiness with excitement. This change is driven by our tendency to focus more on the present moment rather than on the future when the time horizon shrinks.

Companies need to rethink and experiment with the schedules of push notifications, emails, ads and social media posts. Customers are inundated with too much information from digital channels as it is, and the flood is exacerbated in times of crisis as people consume more news and most of the communication with the outside world relies on digital channels.

So, instead of bombarding customers with new and exciting offers, companies should communicate in a way that helps customers focus on the present without overly stimulating them. This should shape the copy, colors, and shapes used in the visual design. Softer colors and smooth shapes are more calming and would probably be better received. Call-to-actions should highlight the immediate benefits of purchasing, subscribing or engaging with digital products. Additionally, reducing information overload and the number of choices on websites or apps is more important than ever to create a sense of peacefulness.

Another strategy that might be worth holding off on for a while, is creating FOMO (Fear of missing out) among customers. Marketers frequently use urgency in their messaging and attempt to create the perception that if customers didn’t use the product they would be missing out on something important, fun or exciting. This type of message is likely to backfire now that FOMO is high anyway due to the cancellation of most, if not all, public events and social distancing practices.

Designing for wellbeing in times of stress is possible, and the effort is relatively low compared to the immense personal and business benefits of keeping customers pleased and even delighted during this time.

Takeaways

Amidst the global outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, we rely on digital products more than ever. Those of us who work in digital organizations are uniquely positioned to help people cope with the changing reality and even improve their wellbeing.

It is encouraging that studies found an unexpected benefit of facing life’s fragility. A shorter time horizon contributes to wellbeing since people focus more on what makes them feel good in the present moment and prioritize emotionally meaningful experiences.

This shift is also changing how people interact with digital products and what constitutes a good online experience. Companies should be aware of these changes and adapt to them. In this article, we examined 3 ways to create a cohesive response strategy.

  • When using social influence to nudge behavior, designers and product professionals should consider downplaying competition and social comparison in favor of encouraging customers to feel more connected to others.
  • The healthiest type of connection revolves around activities and experiences that invoke passion, intrinsic motivation and represent core values. Companies should tailor communication and engagement with customers around these messages to create a deeper connection and drive loyalty.
  • The visual design of products, notifications, and marketing should reduce cognitive load and ease the decision-making process to reduce stimulation and increase peacefulness.

References:

  1. Carstensen, L. L. (2006). The influence of a sense of time on human development. Science, 312(5782), 1913–1915.
  2. Fung, H. H., & Carstensen, L. L. (2006). Goals change when life’s fragility is primed: Lessons learned from older adults, the September 11 attacks and sars. Social cognition, 24(3), 248–278.
  3. Kunzmann, U., Little, T., & Smith, J. (2002). Perceiving control: A double-edged sword in old age. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 57(6), P484-P491.
  4. Mogilner, C., Kamvar, S. D., & Aaker, J. (2011). The shifting meaning of happiness. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(4), 395–402.
  5. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), 68.
  6. Whelan, E., & Clohessy, T. (2020). How the social dimension of fitness apps can enhance and undermine wellbeing. Information Technology & People.

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By Behavior

Behaviorally-informed UX research

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