Designing Technology For Positive Experiences At Work

  • 23 January 2016
  • sjanicke

A guest post by Dr. Magdalena Laib und Dr. Michael Burmester

The holidays are over. Plenty of leisure time with family and friends lies behind us. For most of us this free time between Christmas and New Year’s is filled with special moments. Maybe we were surprised by our loved one with an invitation to dinner in a newly opened restaurant and enjoyed a romantic evening together. Maybe we met an old friend by chance while visiting our hometown and had pleasant memories after this encounter. Maybe we took advantage of our free time to write a few thank you notes to the persons who helped us in our everyday life during the past year.

Now it is time to go back to work. “I could do without work.,” “Vacation was too short.,” “Going back to work makes me feel bad.” From almost everyone we hear voices sounding sad and frustrated when thinking about going back to work.

Positive emotional experiences make people happy. Thus to make people happy the frequency of positive experiences should be increased (Diener, Sandvik, & Pavot, 1991). The research of Positive Psychology shows us plenty of ways to boost our happiness (e.g. Lyubomirsky, 2007; Seligman, 2011). And it is quite easy to imagine that these strategies work when we spend time with our loved ones or when we can decide for ourselves what to do in our leisure time. But is it also possible to foster positive experiences in areas where we are more other-directed and are more subject to constraints, that is at work? Are there fewer positive experiences during our time at work than during our free time? We spend at least one third of our day at work so wouldn’t it be worth making this time more pleasant?

Our project Design4Xperience is one attempt to answer ‘Yes’, to this question. ‘Yes, there should be more positive experiences at work’. Even when the circumstances seem to be more challenging than during our free time, to us it seems to be worth following this promising, albeit probably more stony path. Roughly summarized, two assumptions form the basis of our approach.

I. It doesn’t always have to be the big boost in pay or the promotion that leads to positive emotions (Diener et al., 1991). Small positive experiences also have the potential to make us feel good. We can feel proud when our supervisor praises us. We can feel competent when we were able to help our colleague with a new software program. We can feel connected when we realize how well we work together as teammates.

II. Technology forms a big part of our everyday working life. Thus, when we want to create more positive experiences at work, we should also integrate the technological tools we use there. This means the vision of positive experiences has to be already considered when these tools are designed. Designers and user experience consultants need methods to design for positive experiences.

We are aware that in designing technology for positive experiences at work, we are facing some challenges: A fundamental question is whether professional software should be designed to enable positive experiences or whether the objective of work is mere efficiency and functionality? We think that one thing does not rule out the other. Positive experiences, for example, increase physical wellbeing (Kok et al., 2013)and make people more creative as well as resilient (Fredrickson, 2004). These values are especially appreciated in working contexts.

Furthermore, positive experiences are not only about fun. Research has demonstrated a variety of positive emotions that seem quite useful at work. Gratitude, for example, may help to improve social relationships (e.g. Algoe, Haidt, & Gable, 2008). A study has shown that supporting customers is a source of positive, affective experiences for service workers (Kiffin-Petersen, Murphy, & Soutar, 2012). Finding the meaningfulness in work may help to identify with one’s own organization (Steger & Dik, 2013). Thus, more positive experiences might make people do better at their job.

To design for positive experiences at work, new methods are needed to analyze, design and evaluate concepts.

Primarily design has to be thought of differently – we have to change our previous objectives such as usability or efficiency into values such as positive user experience, wellbeing or good life.

Therefore, we probably have to change our own understanding of work, find out what positive experiences we have in our job, think about what makes us happy, grateful or socially connected. This perspective must also be transmitted into education. We have to find new ways to teach future software designers how to design for positive experiences.

At the Stuttgart Media University we conducted a large number of interviews about positive experiences at work. Our study has shown a broad spectrum of positive experiences but also recurring patterns. We found that technology already enables positive experiences and that the experiences reported as positive were often small encounters and situations but that had strong impacts. Concrete projects with associated companies demonstrated that they are open to work on the user experience of their products and are interested in designing their tools for positive experiences.

We thus can act on the assumption that technology and software design has the potential to create positive experiences in different ways. To us it seems quite fascinating to find ways and methods to do so.


Dr. Magdalena Laib and Dr. Michael Burmester are both Psychologists and are doing their research at the Stuttgart Media University. Michael is professor for ergonomics and usability and has been doing User Experience research for more than 20 years. He is also head of the Information Experience and Design Research Group (IXD). Magdalena is a member of the IXD and works in the project Design4Xperience. One of her main foci is the evaluation of software concepts based on Positive Psychology. Both are very interested in Positive Psychology and in transferring it to software design.


Algoe, S. B., Haidt, J., & Gable, S. L. (2008). Beyond reciprocity: gratitude and relationships in everyday life. Emotion, 8(3), 425–429.

Diener, E., Sandvik, E., & Pavot, W. (1991). Happiness is the frequency, not the intensity, of positive versus negative affect. Subjective Well-Being: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, 21, 119–139.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1367–78.

Kiffin-Petersen, S., Murphy, S. A., & Soutar, G. (2012). The problem-solving service worker: Appraisal mechanisms and positive affective experiences during customer interactions. Human Relations, 65(9), 1179–1206.

Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., Brantley, M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1123–32.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. London: Penguin.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Steger, M. F., & Dik, B. J. (2013). Work as Meaning: Individual and Organizational Benefits of Engaging in Meaningful Work. In P. A. Linley, S. Harrington, & N. Garcea (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work (pp. 131–142). Oxford: Oxford University Press.