Positive UX: Optimal user experience is more than the absence of usability issues

A collection of images of peoples' eyes and smiles - ux imageFigure 1: We craft optimal experiences everyday. We are Nomensa.

The study of well-being focuses on the topics of positive psychological functioning and experience. It has captured the interest of moral philosophers for centuries. We continually exercise a pursuit for the ‘good life,’ one of our highest human needs, and since the beginning of intellectual history we’ve aimed to understand what it means and how it can be achieved. Over the past 20 years well-being research in empirical psychology has become especially prominent with the emergence of the Positive Psychology movement. Broadly speaking, the approach has highlighted that good health and well-being is more than simply the absence of illness. In other words, being well is more that not being unwell. By focusing on optimal experience and functioning, the perspective works towards addressing a traditional imbalance among psychological research that has typically focused on issues and impaired functioning. In this article I’ll be applying a similar approach to introduce ‘Positive UX’; the idea that good UX isn’t simply the absence of usability issues. I intend to draw parallels between the fields of well-being and UX in order to illustrate the factors that define and foster Positive UX and the implications this may have on measuring good experience with the web.

Defining optimal experience: hedonism vs. eudaimonia

Broadly speaking, well-being researchers have formed two groups and focus either on subjective well-being (SWB) or psychological well-being (PWB).

Subjective well-being

The core concept of subjective well-being dates back to ideas of fourth century Greek philosopher Aristippus. He taught that our ultimate goal as humans is to experience the maximum amount of pleasure. Happiness, according to Aristippus, is the sum of these hedonic pleasure-seeking moments. Over time this view has been developed to suggest that three components determine our optimal experiences:

  • The presence of positive emotion;
  • The absence of negative emotion;
  • An assessment of satisfaction.

According to this approach, our good experiences are shaped by a pleasure versus displeasure balance i.e. judgements of positive elements of interaction versus negative elements. These judgements are weighted against an overall assessment of satisfaction, which derives from attainment of goals or valued outcomes.

Scales of representing the balance between experiencing positive and negative emotion. At the centre of the scales is an assessment of satisfaction, which can both independent from, and facilitative of, positive and negative emotions.Figure 2: Subjective well-being - the balance between positive emotion and negative emotion weighted against satisfaction.

From a UX perspective this all seems logical. To create good experiences for users we should maximise the positive emotions elicited by a website and minimise the negatives ones. We should establish the primary online tasks of users and make these goals easily achievable. But can experience really be reduced to the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure? Is optimal experience more than simply balancing the good and the bad?

Psychological well-being

An alternative approach to the study of well-being stems from the Aristotelian view that optimal experience is found in human growth and achievement of potential. This eudaimonic perspective suggests that good experiences involve the expression of virtue and excellence, rather than the search for momentary pleasure. Within the last decade, proponents of the eudaimonic view of well-being have converged, and a multi-dimensional model has been generated to define this alternative approach to optimal experience. Psychologists Ryff and Singer (1) suggest that psychological well-being as distinct from subjective well-being, and taps six dimensions of optimal experience. Of the six components, four translate nicely into a definition our optimal experiences with the web:

  • Mastery – good experience involves managing the demands of interaction without exceeding capacity;
  • Purpose – good experience is meaningful and has purpose;
  • Autonomy – good experience evokes a sense of self-determination and freedom;
  • Growth – good experience facilitates continued growth and development.

Applying the conceptions of this model to UX provides us with an overarching top-down approach to defining optimal experience. It suggests that to achieve this experience we must be able to master a purposeful interface; an interface which generates self-motivation to explore and grow. The interaction should be manageable, intuitive and demonstrate clear meaning. It should instil an internal drive that makes us want to learn more and grow within a clear and understandable structure. See Meaning is everything so let's design for it for a further discussion on the importance of meaning.

Fostering optimal experience: overlapping perspectives

Although both hedonistic and eudaimonic perspectives are distinct, they share some degree of overlap. For example, both personal growth and SWB variables have factored in research into well-being and mental health (2). Furthermore, studies have shown that both happiness and meaning are implicated when rating features of a good life (3) and in positive functioning (4). It’s therefore likely that optimal experience is best conceived as a multidimensional phenomenon that includes features of both hedonistic and eudaimonic perspectives.

Diagram outlining the concept of optimal experience and it's components. These include the facets of mastery, purpose, autonomy, growth, presence of positive emotion, absence of negative emotion, and satisfaction. User Experience image.Figure 3: multidimensional approach to optimal experience.

Future implications for UX

Drawing parallels between the fields of well-being and UX opens up some exciting new avenues for measurement of Positive UX. They may include introducing rating scales during usability testing that quantitatively measure each of the dimensions of optimal experience. Potential measurement could involve the following:

  • Positive/negative emotions (SWB): an item scale that measures positive (interesting, engaging) and negative (irritating, frustrating) emotive descriptions of a website on a 1 (not at all) to 5 (very) scale.
  • Satisfaction (SWB): rating items (e.g. “The ease of finding items X, Y and Z on the website was excellent”) on a 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) scale.
  • Scales of PWB: rating items that measure each of the dimensions of psychological well-being (three items per dimension): mastery, purpose, growth, autonomy. Items could be rated on a 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) scale.

References

1. Ryff, C, D., & Singer, B. (1998). The contours of positive human health. Psychological Inquiry, 9, 1-28. 2. Compton, W, C., Smith, M, L., Cornish, K, A., & Quall, D, L. (1996). Factor structure of mental health measures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 406-413. 3. King, L, A., & Napa, C, K. (1988). What makes life good? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 156-165. 4. Mikulincer, M., & Florian, V. (1998). The relationship between adult attachment styles and emotional and cognitive reactions to stressful events. In J. A. Simpson, & W. S. Rholes (eds), Attachment Theory and Close Relationships (pp. 143-166). New York: Guilford Press.