Building a business or product? Listen up. 

Your highest priority is understanding your customer. In the Lean Startup process, this is labeled Customer Development. In the design world, we like to use the phrase User Interviews.

Whatever you call it, the end goal is the same: have a discussion with potential customers (or users) to determine pain points, which you can design into a useful product. 

I’m not here to talk about what makes a great interview; that’s what Steve Krug is for. I’m here to explore the application of Positive Psychology to customer development. In particular, I’d like to discuss the PERMA Model, and how to use it to gather insights during user interviews.

Why Positive Psychology

Martin Seligman, past president of the APA, explains that Positive psychology exists because modern psychologists have found that relieving misery (solving a problem) is not the same as providing delight (creating happiness.) 

Positive psychology is primarily concerned with using the psychological theory, research and intervention techniques to understand the positive, adaptive, creative and emotionally fulfilling aspects of human behavior.

Psychology has traditionally been focused on curing mental illness, on bringing people from negative to baseline — on helping the miserable be less miserable. That’s a great thing, but it’s not good enough. Lifting people from baseline to positive should be a focus.

As with any theory, it has its criticism, rooted in self-delusion and reality-distortion. But a designer such as yourself understands how to separate the wheat from the chaff, and must not overlook techniques that may prove valuable.

The PERMA Model

When you talk about Positive psychology, you have to mention the PERMA model. It’s an acronym used to recall different aspects of living a happy, fulfilling life:

  • Positive Emotions - feeling good (ex. enjoyment, pleasure, joy, gratitude)
  • Engagement - having states of flow (Watch this 18m)
  • Relationships - genuine connections with other people.
  • Meaning - living with purpose or mission; a sense of being connected to something larger than ourselves.
  • Achievement - feelings of progress, accomplishment, and success.

Applying PERMA during interviews

I like to consider these as contained within the top 3 levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.One of my mentors likens this to a game of Sims - each piece of PERMA represents bars that shift daily, bars that you should strive to keep topped-off.

Using PERMA as a framework, you’ll find it much easier to interview your customer in a directed manner. You’ll find a deficit in (at least) one of the 5 legs of PERMA, that you can improve in your product.


In my next post, I’ll walk through a practical interview with PERMA as a guide to uncover ways to improve my product’s design. 

Have questions? Reach out to me on Twitter, or schedule a time to chat with me via Skype.