Guest Blog: Happier Hippos - a design solution that is already in your head | by Pete Trainor

Wow - What an incredible gift it is to be able to speak at the British Museum at such a momentous date on the Design calendar. Honestly, I'm like a child.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton once famously said "I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder"... A couple of the design principles that make for Happier Hippos (don't worry, you'll be in on the Hippo secret once you've heard my talk) - Thanks and Gratitude.

My talk is dedicated to a wonderful lady called Christine El Mahdy, who was one of the world's most eminent Egyptologists and also a dear, dear friend and mentor to me when I was growing up (little known fact, I'm a scholar of Egyptology!). She was taken from us in 2008 far too young, but every time I return to the British Museum, I'm reminded about all the times we spent there, her spiritual home, and what she taught me; always be curious, maintain gratitude and look at the world with a sense of childlike wonder because of all the things we're capable of doing as human beings, when we're motivated and focused on doing better things, not things better.

In a lot of ways Christine was the person who got me into design even at that very early age, because she would help me to try and understand how those huge structures across Ancient Egypt had been designed and constructed. Largely through pure blood, sweat, tears and I've no doubt a vast amount of curiosity. For millennia, the Great Pyramid has stood in mute testimony to the architectural genius of its designers - they must have been the happiest people ever when they stood back and went "we did that".

(image credit: Ricardo Liberato)

So it really makes me happy to come back to the British Museum and so happy to deliver what I hope will be my seminal moment in design thinking - it's like coming full circle. From being in awe of designers to becoming one.

The reason I talk about happiness alot is that it's our new design measurement, our new KPI. A few years ago researchers from University College London even developed an equation for it after observing a group of study participants playing a game involving monetary risks and rewards. They then used the equation to analyse data from more than 18,000 people around the globe, collected through a smartphone app.

It was a remarkable achievement. Something that has kept me curious since I read about it almost in the same way that the Pyramid talks with Christine did. It got me thinking about whether there could be a different way of approaching the design of everyday digital experiences. I wanted to know if it would be possible to design products in a certain way that would inspire happiness and change the way people think and behave.

That's where the Nexus Moon Shot started - "What If" - What if we could create a design methodology that helps designers, to help the people using their designs, to start to see the world in a different light and give them back a little bit of something special - a little bit of clinical happiness. Give them a Happier Hippo.

What if we could apply that theory to something even more important like mental health. We could be on the edge of something big. What if?

The fuel in the happiness cycle 

Over the last decade data came along and gave us another wondrous opportunity to observe people's behaviour on a moment-by-moment basis, including how they feel and what they were thinking before they feel happy. So it's not such a ridiculous concept anymore - this idea I had that we might be able to create "Happiness by Design".

At the nexus of brain science, data and design is the solution to the question we've been seeking to answer - Can happiness be designed? Yes. Yes it can.

I can’t pretend to understand how researchers develop complex equations, but as a very curious designer, father, flâneur. raconteur and occasional human I'm mad enough to give designing design a go. What is there to lose? That's why I set up Nexus last year. I had a very specific goal to start using UX and Design for something more than just usability and interaction design. Those are routines - the function of the solution - what I wanted to explore and change were the cues and the rewards in a solution. Go back to the basic human conditions.

Everyone can gravitate around the idea of being a bit happier, and if happiness is really what we expect and how strongly we expect it, then it's completely feasible for people like us to design something driven by the factors that can make us happier. According to cognitive and computational neuroscientist Robb Rutledge, sometimes happiness results from following the pessimist’s maxim: "Keep your expectations low, and if they’re exceeded then you’ll be pleasantly surprised".

You're going to be really delighted when I pull off the cover from my talk in October. I set out to create Nexus and the Big Hippo framework with very little expectation, just a pocket full of curiosity and dreams and so, for me, the last year has been a very, very pleasant surprise indeed and one that I'm really excited to share with you all at Interact London. It's now time to start the-power-of-pass-it-on & share the design framework with you all, so in turn, you can go back to your respective roles and start Happiness by Design by using Big Hippo aswell.

The framework we've developed jibes nicely with the ideas that certain functions can change the way people behave and using a different type of language to help people think about themselves in a different way, we can spark elevated feelings. Achieving or exceeding the experience we set out to create can lead to even more dopamine activity, and, consequently, even higher emotion - Happiness if you like. It's possible to design that if it's done in the right way. I'll teach you how.

So the 20th October is going to be one awesome day. It's my Pyramid for Christine and a chance to teach anybody willing to open their mind and listen that we can make Happier Hippos.

See you there!


Pete Trainor is speaking at Interact London on 20 October 2015. Make sure you're in the room for his talk 'Bigger Hippos & Happier Humans' by booking your place at the event today >>

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